Plastic-free Packaging (Fruit and Vegetables) — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:45 pm on 12th November 2018.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:45 pm, 12th November 2018

I know my hon. Friend feels passionately about this subject. It is important not to demonise plastic entirely, but we need to consider taking the holistic approach to the environment to which hon. Members have referred. I understand what he says, but at the moment there is not a huge market for some of the products that are technically recyclable. That is what we are trying to change and to stimulate.

I have already referred to the tax that was announced in the Budget. We also intend to reform the packaging producer responsibility system, which will increase producer responsibility for the cost of all their packaging waste, including plastic. The system will provide an incentive for producers to design packaging that is easier to recycle and will penalise the use of difficult-to-recycle packaging.

Recognising the global challenge, the Prime Minister announced an unprecedented package earlier this year at the Commonwealth summit. We have come together with other Commonwealth nations to establish the Blue Charter, and the United Kingdom and Vanuatu are co-chairing the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. About £66 million of UK aid has been made available to boost global research and to help countries across the Commonwealth to stop plastic entering the oceans, which was one of the key motivations behind today’s petition.

As part of the package of support, this September we launched the Global Plastics Action Partnership alongside the Canadian Government to help to deliver on those goals. The partnership will bring businesses, Governments and other organisations together to develop country action plans to address the plastics problem. Companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo and the Dow Chemical Company are already supporting it, and several others are in discussions. We have invested £2.4 million in that initiative alone; the funding has been matched by the Canadian Government, and we believe that further commercial partners will come on board.

As my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey said, one of the challenges of plastics occurs when they leak out of the system. Addressing the problem is not solely about eradication; it is clearly also a question of management. However, we need a shift in how we think about how to reduce avoidable waste. One of the things that has been said today is how much consumers need to change their behaviour. I agree that we need to get consumers themselves to consider changing their behaviour, but we know that retailers are a key way of getting them to do that, as are manufacturers.

The convenience of getting all of one’s shopping in the same place has been a big driver for supermarket shopping, as opposed to visiting a local greengrocer or going to the market, so we want retailers to act responsibly. We are working with them and the Waste and Resources Action Programme, WRAP, to encourage efforts to reduce waste and to explore the introduction of plastic-free supermarket initiatives in which food is loose, giving consumers the choice.

WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched their plastics pact with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and 80 businesses, including some non-governmental organisations and service providers. The pact aims to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Participants will also work together to recycle or compost 70% of plastic packaging, while striving to eliminate single-use plastics. A week or so ago, we also supported the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new plastics economy global commitment. We are one of just a handful of Governments that have signed up to that. It is important to lead by example and support such important global initiatives.

Returning to the debate about wrapping cucumbers or cauliflowers in plastic, such practices are an important part of innovation with regard to increasing shelf life and reducing food waste. I understand that the hon. Member for Ipswich is a bit sceptical about balancing the two, but keeping food fresher for longer through innovations such as vacuum packing and resealable packs has a significant impact on extending the life of many products and reducing waste. If a product is wasted due to insufficient packaging, the costs of disposal can often have a greater environmental impact than the packaging itself. We need to strike the delicate balance between the two. Food waste in itself is a huge environmental and financial issue. It is suggested that more than 10 million tonnes of food and drink waste arise annually in the UK after the farm gate.

We are taking a comprehensive approach to tackle the problem. With WRAP we launched the Courtauld commitment 2025 in March 2016. That brings together organisations right across the food system—from producers to consumers—to try to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable. However, there may be opportunities where offering food loose may help to reduce plastic waste while not affecting shelf life. That is why we have worked with WRAP and retailers to explore the potential for introducing plastic-free initiatives. WRAP will publish a technical report on the evidence for providing fresh produce loose, and what the differences are.

Many examples have been referred to, and the cucumber is probably the classic one. My hon. Friend John Howell might have been thinking of the Henley royal regatta and the many cucumber sandwiches that are consumed on those days. He will perhaps need to talk to his local food providers, because if people know that they will get through a large number of cucumbers in one or two days, clearly plastic wrapping is not required. I appreciate that the cucumbers might get a bit bruised, but I think they are reasonably hardy.

The cucumber is probably the best example, which is why it is used so often. Instead of the shelf life being two to three days, it is extended to 12 to 15 days with packaging. Without revealing every element of the WRAP technical report, which is due to be published soon, the evidence suggests that there are other products where there is a real environmental improvement to be had from packaging. Those include soft fruits, cherries, berries, raspberries, salad leaves—the bags of salad that regularly get used when people do not feel that they have the time to deal with all that—herbs, grapes, spinach and cabbage. I have not found out about cauliflower, but I will, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay will read the report carefully. WRAP suggests that with those products, there is real evidence that packaging matters in extending the shelf life. The report indicates that there are some other products where it does not particularly make a big difference—carrots are an example.

[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

This comes back to consumer choice. I think that people have got used to picking up elements of this, and I am pleased to see that there have been initiatives; I have certainly noticed them in my local shopping experience. We are seeing a change, and the decision is now being given back to consumers for them to make a positive choice about, for example, using paper bags or collecting stuff loose, and whether produce can be conveniently grouped together—a bunch of bananas is probably the best example of that, as compared with trying to pick up six peaches.

One thing that I hope that the report will be useful in doing—we hope WRAP will publish this by the end of the month—is a bit of consultation, which will give both retailers and manufacturers an opportunity to consider the best way to take this forward, particularly with signatories to the Courtauld commitment and the UK plastics pact. Further to that, we are working with Morrisons to evaluate its current trial of selling uncut, fresh produce plastic-free or loose. The project will provide an independent, evidence-based appraisal of a plastic-free initiative and explore the effects on food waste of reducing plastic packaging. This will inform further retailer and supplier action under the Courtauld commitment and the plastics pact.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn referred to a Budgens branch in Belsize Park, which I believe is a franchise run by Mr Andrew Thornton. Understandably, he recently received some good publicity for his commitment to try to reduce plastic packaging at Budgens and at his other store in Crouch End. There may be other suppliers available, but I want to flag this as a good, local example. I think that they are trying to do something that, as has already been alluded to, people see in their local greengrocer’s. I am conscious that this is part of his community supermarket idea, which he, as the franchise operator, is bringing in to run under the broader Budgens brand.

Other retailers have made good progress with tackling plastics. Waitrose recently published two reports, one of which, on consumer research, highlighted the increase in customer awareness of plastic pollution. The other report is the Waitrose & Partners plastics plan, which has been published to communicate the company’s commitment to eliminate unnecessary plastic and to explain how they are going about it, whether it is through packaging, products, customer engagement or across the supply chain.

There are opportunities and funding for innovation and redesign, which is important. The United Kingdom has signed up to the circular economy directive, and it is our intention to continue that; I think it is a really important way to proceed. We are ambitious about recycling rates, but many Members will be aware that we are sometimes driven by the weight system instead of by the actual issue, and I expect we will consider that in the future. We are committed to making those changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay referred repeatedly to how youth have responded to the issue of reducing plastic packaging, and how they want solutions to be provided. I certainly agree with that. Black plastic has been discussed. Black plastic is recyclable, but not all councils have invested through their contracts in facilities that can identify black plastic as it goes through; there is a certain kind of pigment that can be picked out. One thing that we need to consider is how plastic is used in our food chain. There are reasons why black plastic is used. It is not just for image; it has a function, but there may be opportunities to use different things. By the end of the year, I expect retailers and manufacturers to propose a solution to improve the polymers and reduce the number of polymers that are used in a wide variety of products. Again, that is about trying to make it easier to recycle.

I am sure that many of us are lobbied regularly by our constituents about bin collections. We will have more to say on that in the resources and waste strategy, so I will hold off from talking about it further. I have largely managed to cover the points relevant to the petition that were raised today, but I want to say that we are working with the industry, which has committed to implementing solutions. These matters are on track, but there are some difficult challenges to overcome in innovation, particularly in relation to drinks containers. One of the solutions that we have identified will be taken forward through the UK plastics pact and will ensure that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2025.

I thank again the petitioners who signed this petition and helped us to have this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for opening the debate.