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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 12th November 2018.

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Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 4:56 pm, 12th November 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will mention schoolchildren later in my speech. It is important that we educate children and put recycling into the education system—I grew up not learning anything about recycling—so I will call on the Minister to do that.

Plastic can be recycled only a finite number of times. Recycling stems the tide of plastic waste going into landfills and oceans, but it will not completely stop it. We must acknowledge that recycling is expensive. Our cash-strapped local authorities spend £700 million a year collecting and treating packaging. Much plastic waste, including the film that is often used for fruit and vegetables, which the e-petition alludes to, is not currently recyclable.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned checking cauliflower packaging. I always check avocado packaging before I throw it in the bin, and it says it is not recyclable. We buy things that tend to be cheaper or say they last longer because they are in packaging, but when we go to do our bit to try to save the environment by recycling that packaging, it turns out that we cannot. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy mentioned that in supermarkets across the country, fruit and veg sold without packaging tend to be more expensive than packaged fruit and veg. I have certainly found that. That seems to be a contradiction, which should be looked at.

Some people suggest that rather than cutting down our plastic use, we should change the plastic we use. Bioplastics such as polylactic acid have been touted as a solution. They are made from maize, sugar cane, wheat and other crops, and are said to be compostable. However, such forms of plastic are not the magical solution that they appear to be. For a start, they can be composted only at specialist centres—importantly, they are not compostable for the vast majority of people—so it is not easy to ensure that we put them in the right place, and they take between 100 and 1,000 years to biodegrade in landfill. I think it is safe to say that if we go down the route of using those different kinds of plastic, none of us will be around to see them biodegrade.

Every time such alternative solutions are offered, we should think clearly about their implications. Crops such as corn require huge amounts of land, risking deforestation. That threatens our environment, our wildlife and our planet, which is already under threat. Technologies are developing and more environmentally friendly solutions are appearing all the time. Seaweed-based and even edible plastics may offer a better solution, but they may not be available for some time. On a planet with finite resources, we should be wary of replacing over-consumption of one kind of plastic with another.

The difficulties with those alternatives suggest that the real solution is dramatically to cut down our use of plastic, as the petitioners demand. As elected representatives, whichever fruit or vegetable we prefer—cauliflower or avocado—we need to support people to lead plastic-free lives and encourage future generations to realise the impact of plastic on the environment, wildlife and our planet.

With that in mind, will the Minister commit to increasing funding for plastics innovation? Will she work with local councils to improve recycling rates across the country, and with supermarkets to provide incentives for plastic-free packaging for fruit and vegetables? Will she commit to teaching children about the effects of using plastic and promoting a plastic-free life? Finally, can she give any update on the Prime Minister’s pledge in January to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042? Does the Minister agree that that deadline is wholly inadequate?