Plastics Recycling

– in Westminster Hall at 6:29 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats 6:29 pm, 23rd April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered plastics recycling.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead an environmental debate after an environmental weekend. I was lucky enough to be part of the Opposition leaders’ meeting with Greta Thunberg this morning, which reminded us all that there is a world beyond Brexit.

I want to narrow the discussion to the issue of plastics recycling. I know it is well-trodden territory in many ways. In the past 20 years, a whole body of British legislation and policy has been built on the waste directive. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has four consultations in varying stages of completion. We will no doubt touch on some of those issues. There is also a great deal of very good documentation, including the excellent paper from the Library on plastic waste.

I acknowledge from the outset that the issue is superficially simple, but actually extremely complex. There are many different kinds of plastic, each with different approaches with different costs and benefits. There are many useful and necessary applications. For example, there is an enormous distinction between macroplastics and microplastics. The macroplastics that we talk about in public debate include plastic bottles. Microplastics are built into such things as our clothing and the wear of tyres, and may have even bigger environmental impacts.

I approach the subject from three different directions. First, like many Members, I have been lobbied, through vast numbers of letters, by local schoolchildren about the issues to do with plastics in the ocean. They asked me to raise the issue in Parliament, which I am now doing. In many cases, they were highly motivated by seeing the David Attenborough series, “The Blue Planet”. Those arguments have been well rehearsed and I do not need to develop them.

In researching for today, I found some of the facts—perhaps we should call them factoids—surrounding the subject very striking. One was that while plastics are generally very light and buoyant, we are heading to a situation where the weight of plastics in the ocean will soon exceed the total weight of fish. Even more strikingly —it is authoritative, because it came out of a Government press release—every year, the ingestion of plastics by fish and entanglement result in the loss of a million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals. That is extraordinary. Children have every reason to be very exercised.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree—it is 25 years this year since I started the environmental organisation, the Socialist Environment and Resources Association—that we consistently have to go right back to the manufacture of plastics? I beg him to meet Professor Steve Evans at the institute for sustainable manufacture at Cambridge University. Changing what we manufacture is at the heart of a long-term resolution.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I would be delighted to meet the professor, if he is happy to meet me. The hon. Gentleman is right that we are often looking at the wrong end of the process. We should be looking at the origins.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his speech thus far. Picking up on that point on manufacturing, will he join me in congratulating Capital Valley Plastics in my constituency? It uses waste plastic as the raw material for its final product. That raw material would otherwise end up in landfill or the oceans.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a constructive response to the problem. If more manufacturers were like his, the economy in plastics would be in a much healthier state. I will come in a moment to some of the reasons why that company is one of the relatively few that are succeeding. It is extremely important none the less.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry. We have already spoken about manufacturing. Manufacturers take an entirely responsible attitude to plastic; it is people putting plastic in the wrong place that gives rise to the problem. The industry has a target of having zero to landfill by 2030, and has made great steps to get to 78% now. Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the efforts that the industry is making to do the right thing and to avoid waste getting into the wrong place?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I acknowledge the will of the industry, but there is a lot of bad practice and a lot of products that are unnecessary and are produced in ways that do not help. I fully acknowledge that a lot of manufacturers are responsible, and I am sure they are the people with whom the hon. Gentleman is engaging.

The second direction from which I am approaching this matter is in relation to the global warming controversy, which we have been debating over the weekend. Plastics have a somewhat ambiguous role here. They save on air miles and other forms of transport because they are relatively light materials—I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s manufacturers would make that point—but they are also hydrocarbons, so their manufacture and disposal add to global warming gases.

When looking at the material, I found little clarity about the net effect. There is speculation that in 2050, which is the end of our national statutory period for targets, we could have between 15% and 30% of the carbon allowance dedicated to plastic use. I do not know what the answer is. It would be helpful if DEFRA and the Minister commissioned a study, or brought together the studies that have been done, on the impact of plastics on global warming, because the area is ambiguous.

The third reason I secured this debate is that this is the time of year when I, like other colleagues, go to visit other constituencies in the context of local elections. This year I have noticed a particular interest in environmental issues and recycling in local elections. Councils are rightly trying to up their game and avoid the penalties associated with waste disposal.

The situation in my borough brings out some of the dilemmas. It is effective in recycling: it recycles 95% of bottles, cardboard, paper and cans, but it recycles only 50% of plastics. There are some inherent problems, such as food contamination, which clogs up machinery, is very bad for the people who have to do the picking and attracts vermin. Many members of the public do not seem to appreciate that it is difficult to deal with. In the case of many plastics—this goes back to an earlier intervention—the manufacturers do not appear to appreciate that, for technical reasons in the manufacture, their product is non-recyclable. A little example is the devices we use for cleaning fluid: the bottles can be recycled, but the gadgets at the top to squeeze out the fluid cannot. The black plastics used in a lot of carry-out food cannot be recycled. Most people are not aware of that, and there is clearly a major public education task involved. Perhaps the Government should be focusing rather more on that.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

When I have gone around talking to various councils, one thing that has come back—notwithstanding what has been said in the debate—is that there need to be changes to packaging waste regulations. Does the right hon. Gentleman have an idea of what those changes might be? As my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey said, it is not about the good manufacturers, but the bad manufacturers and how we deal with them.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

For a start, it would help if we had a properly, clearly defined hierarchy of plastic products. Some are clearly necessary, highly desirable and beneficial, while others are utterly trivial, wasteful and costly to the environment. If that hierarchy was clearly established by scientific inquiry and promoted by Government, that would be helpful to local authorities.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour/Co-operative, Swansea West

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the simple economic fact that if the cost and price of plastic were higher, less would be consumed and produced? It is therefore incumbent on the Government to introduce a tax system on plastic that differentiates between less recyclable versus more recyclable plastics, bans the worst and taxes the less bad—or taxes them all—so that people move to more cost-effective, sustainable alternatives.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

That is right; it is basic market principles allied to the environment. The Government announced in last year’s Budget that they would proceed with that. There is a consultation, which we will no doubt hear more about from the Minister.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from that very good answer to that very good suggestion, may I suggest that real waste experts—people who know about plastics and waste—say, “Make waste valuable and it will be recycled.” If there is no money and no reward for picking it up and recycling it, we are on to a loser. Greta Thunberg wants action now. Can we not make waste valuable quickly?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

That is correct, but with one qualification: it also makes the export of waste valuable. I will come back to the particular problem associated with that in a moment.

In the short time that I have, I will put three specific issues to the Minister. The first concerns data, which has already been raised by the Environmental Audit Committee. There are vast disparities in the numbers that make it very difficult to make sense of what is happening. To quote a few examples, I think the official figures are that 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year in the UK. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that it is about 5 million tonnes, and Economia, which does consultancy in this area, estimates that it is about 3 million to 4 million tonnes. Perhaps they are using different definitions, but we need clarity, because at the moment there is wild variation.

That also applies to what is being achieved in terms of recycling and waste disposal. I understand that the official figures are that 91% of waste is either recycled or recovered in other ways—the definition of recovery includes incineration and export—and only 9% goes to landfill. However, again, the World Wildlife Fund has wildly different numbers. It suggests that 48% goes to landfill, 20% to 30% is recycled, and 22% is used as an energy source. I do not know why there is that difference. Again, it may be a definitional question, but some clear and unambiguous statement from the Government about the position would be very helpful.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

I recently visited Clean Tech in Lincolnshire, which is the largest recycler of PET—polyethylene terephthalate—in the UK. Clean Tech’s representatives showed me their bales of plastic, inside which they find such things as bowling balls and car engines. They showed me the bales of plastic in France, and they were clean. They all said that when they go to buy the plastic, they are often outbid, and the plastic is then exported. We need to clean up our plastic, and then ban the export of plastic waste. Clean Tech said that it could recycle every piece of PET in the UK, but not at the moment, because the system is broken. Should we not ban the export of plastic?

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

That is exactly the issue that I am getting on to. As it happens, I think I visited the hon. Gentleman’s waste plant when I was Secretary of State, so I have some recollection of it. It was a progressive development, but it has the anomalies that he describes.

My second question relates directly to that intervention; it is about the role of exports. We have somewhat flattering statistics that suggest that Britain is meeting, and indeed exceeding, the European waste objective—I believe that 48% is recycled. The definition of recycling does not equate to reprocessing. There are vast differences, and according to the National Audit Office, half of all products that are described as recycled are exported. Quite apart from the question that one might raise about the quality of the treatment in the countries to which such products are exported, there is a serious problem about what we are doing in this country, and in particular how we will respond to the closing of doors in China.

I think China now bans waste imports, and I believe that Malaysia has indicated that it is doing the same. If that is increasingly the pattern in the more developed of the emerging economies in Asia, where will this stuff go? Are we looking for cheap and nasty disposal in Africa, or will it be stocked and dealt with here, and if so, how? To deal with it involves incentives and support for the reprocessing industry—not just recycling, but reprocessing. As Mr Sheerman pointed out, that requires tax, because at the moment it is unattractive to reprocess. It is much more profitable to export. There will have to be a tax on the finished plastic products, which will have to be fairly substantial to level the playing field.

I ask the Minister what the Government have analysed the effect of the Chinese border closure to be. What impact will that have on the recycling and reprocessing industries, and how rapid an adjustment will we have to make to the closing of international markets?

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. Does the issue that he has just raised not bring a wider and more important principle into the debate? Just as with energy production, the Government are beginning to meet targets through interconnectors and looking at importing renewable energy, perhaps from Denmark and elsewhere. Part of the issue is that the Government are potentially meeting recycling targets artificially by exporting goods, when we do not know that they are being recycled in the way that we would like them to be. That is not really in the spirit of addressing our carbon reduction targets as well as I hope that all of us in the Chamber would want.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman is right. I do not think that the Government are necessarily being disingenuous; it just happens to be that the way that recycling is treated has not traditionally distinguished between domestic processing and export. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government are trying to redress that.

This is a relatively short debate, so I want to give others an opportunity to speak. My final point relates to how we deal with end-use consumption. Two of the Government’s consultations are about that, but I think it is useful for Members to express a view at this stage. One obvious area is the plastic bag experience. We had a massive impact—an 88% reduction in demand—as a result of quite a modest 5p charge on bags. However, at the moment it is restricted to firms with more than 250 employees. I understand the reasoning; the Government do not want to expand the regulation to single-handed shopkeepers. However, there is surely a number in between—say five employees and above—that would be much more realistic and have a significant impact.

The second potential action, which the Government again are consulting on, is introducing deposits for bottles. One of the reasons the German experience in this area is so much better than the British experience is that the Germans have, in effect, a 20p tax on plastic bottles, which can be refunded, giving people a strong incentive to reuse as well as recycle.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

As kids, we used to collect bottles. Bellshill Nisa in my area collects plastic bottles and refunds money to charities. Perhaps the Minister could take that up. Kids could pick up plastic bottles, take them back to the local shop and receive money for them.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I am sure that the Minister will have an answer to that, since the Government are consulting at the moment. There is a whole variety of creative initiatives one could explore, such as installing water fountains or just encouraging people to fill their bottles with tap water, but it requires a change of culture as well as an economic levy.

In considering the issues, the Government have a following wind in public opinion. A very good survey by YouGov last week suggested that about 80% of the public are comfortable with the idea of an extra charge on plastic bottles, around 70% are comfortable with the idea of extending the plastic bag tax, and a large majority are willing to pay something like £2 a week more on £100-worth of groceries. For many hard-pressed households, that is not an inconsiderable sum, and one has to be sensitive to issues of family poverty. However, the majority of public opinion seems to be reconciled to the idea that to reduce plastic usage, there will have to be additional charges.

In conclusion, let me point out that the Government have a rather modest long-term objective of working towards eliminating unnecessary plastic use—I think that is the phrase they use—by 2042. In that year, I will be waiting for my 100th birthday card from Buckingham Palace. I suggest that if that objective were brought forward to, say, 2025, we would be dealing with a more realistic timescale. I look forward to hearing what colleagues have to say.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Order. Three Back Benchers want to speak and there are three Front Benchers to respond, so I would be very grateful if the Back-Bench speakers stuck to four to five minutes each. I call Bill Grant.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 6:50 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank Sir Vince Cable for securing this important debate.

As an individual, I welcome the fact that the Government have already banned plastic microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products. Previously, each time someone showered with such products, tens of thousands of microbeads began their tortuous journey into our oceans, putting our marine life at risk. I also welcome the 5p charge that we have introduced for single-use plastic bags, which has reduced their use by approximately 88%, and the deposit return scheme that the Government propose for drink bottles. Such a scheme is not a novel concept for those who, like me, are of a certain vintage. I recall earlier schemes for glass, for bottles of milk, soft drinks or beer, and for jam jars—some hon. Members present may recognise the term “jeelie jars”—which had a value at the Co-operative.

Mr Sheerman made the very good point that giving waste a value helps to reduce or recycle it. That theory stands up well. It is particularly encouraging that plastic bottles of mineral water are no longer on sale here in Parliament and that, to my surprise, the House recently introduced a 25p surcharge for disposable coffee cups. Being a Scots fellow—this may apply to those from Yorkshire as well—I paid it just the once and will not be paying it again, so the system works. Both measures are very sound.

The Chancellor spoke in his spring statement about the Government’s commitment to help to protect critical habitats, including by supporting the Ascension Island Council’s call to designate some of its waters as a marine protected area, having proposed in the 2018 Budget a new tax on the manufacture or import of plastic packaging of less than 30% recyclable material. As in many cases, however, there is a negative side. A recent article on marine conservation by Eleanor Church highlighted the “plastic soup” of waste in the north Pacific vortex, which potentially covers an immense 1.6 million sq km and weighs an estimated 80,000 metric tonnes, which is unimaginable—it is certainly beyond my imagination. Who done it? We done it.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I understand that a Scottish university—I think it is Edinburgh, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me—is doing some really interesting research into the possibility of solar-powered autonomous vehicles controlling the seas and oceans, sucking up the plastic, chipping it and taking it to the nearest port for recycling. I really think that that is part of the future.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure which Scottish university is doing that research, but I think it may be Edinburgh. Although it has not been proven, that is an innovative idea for recovering what we have polluted our oceans with, and I certainly hope that the researchers make progress with it. I wish them well and hope that the UK Government or the Scottish Government will encourage such research, because we really need it to work and materialise.

Regrettably, I understand that a vortex also exists in the north Atlantic. Such vortexes of waste are a shame on our society and on western society, because we are responsible for that pollution. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I hope we can find a way to remove it, because it is a threat to marine life and to the humans who ply and fish the waters affected.

We need to seriously address our throwaway approach to life and our frequently irrational desire to cosset our purchases in excessive packaging that may not be entirely recyclable if it is composed of polymers, particularly given how much plastic waste we produce here in the United Kingdom. Even going by the middle figure, we produce a phenomenal amount: approximately 3.7 million tonnes annually. Nevertheless, by signing up in December 2017 to the UN resolution on marine litter and microplastics, the UK Government have taken a step, albeit a small one, in the correct direction, with the aim of further combating marine litter. I also applaud the Scottish Government for publishing a strategy and a plan to address marine litter.

It is worthy of note that retailers in the United Kingdom —I nearly said “Every little helps”—are attempting to do their bit for the environment. I understand that Waitrose has pledged to stop using black plastic trays by the end of this year. That is to be welcomed, as is the fact that other retailers have indicated that they will follow suit, thereby reducing the volume of such material that, regrettably, ends up in landfill.

In looking forward, we must reflect on past generations, who rarely bought pre-packaged goods. They coped with a minimalist approach, often relying on greaseproof paper or paper bags to take home the essentials; I am sure that in those days the paper would have ended up as fuel for the home fire. Similarly, the “make do and mend” ethos that was applied to natural fabrics in bygone eras needs to be applied again, where possible, and we need to consider carefully our constant use of synthetic textiles with the potential to shed polluting microfibres.

I note that the UK Government are hopeful that their resources and waste strategy will lead to significant improvements, including by ending confusion over recycling. We have to make recycling simpler; I note that the Ayrshire councils make a great effort to provide receptacles, but as a nation we do not seem able to select the correct one.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

People have put forward some very simplistic solutions, such as not exporting waste any more, but does the hon. Gentleman accept the view from the industry that if we stopped exporting waste, especially for reprocessing in Europe, our country would be full of plastic? We would be up to our necks in it. Much of our reprocessing takes place in Europe, and if we come out of the European Union, those exports will be banned.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very clearly, but my answer is that as a nation we have to learn to reduce our use of plastic. Let us not produce so much in the first place—and if we do produce it, it should have to be recyclable. It was mentioned earlier that China is no longer accepting waste imports, but why should we burden other nations with our waste? Let us reduce our waste and live under a managed waste system that we can cope with, without burdening other nations. We also need to make the polluter pay and generally reform the packaging producer responsibility system.

It will be interesting in due course to digest the response to the Government’s call for evidence and the findings that emanate from the recent consultations. I know that lately the Minister and the Department have taken greater steps on environmental matters than ever before, but I would be delighted to see a special focus on plastic waste. In the meantime, can the Minister confirm what support, if any, the Government are providing for the various plastic initiatives such as the waste and resources action plan, the plastics industry recycling action plan and the UK circular plastics network? We have done a great deal, but there is no doubt that a great deal more needs to be done to reduce the dependency of this nation and others on plastic.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:57 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Vince Cable on securing this timely debate—it is just a shame that so few hon. Members are present.

The plastics debate has been illuminated to us recently in the media, not least by Sir David Attenborough, and having Greta Thunberg among us in Parliament today has brought it very much to the fore. The reality is that plastic production and use continue to rise across the UK; according to the statistics I have, it rises by about 4% each year, but we know that the data need to be more reliable. Of course, we also send much of our waste—the things we do not want to deal with—overseas for others to deal with, which is clearly not acceptable.

This year, I took part in the Tearfund plastic challenge for Lent, which brought plastic into sharp focus for me. I thought that not purchasing any plastic for 40 days and 40 nights was a good idea when I signed up, but the plastic fast hit me on my first trip to the supermarket: everywhere I turned, plastic stared back at me. I was incensed. Had I been blind to the scale of the plastic virus until now? Having previously been frustrated by how much plastic I had seen, I was now angry. As a consumer, I was given no choice but to walk out of the supermarket and rethink my life. Try it—I recommend it.

My first respite was York’s Shambles Market. Here I could buy fruit and veg and put them straight into my cloth bag for life. Other outlets in York, such as Alligator and Bishy Weigh, where customers fill their recycled pots with grains and groceries, provide an alternative to the plastic wrapping used by all the supermarkets.

My diet has changed—for the better, I have to say; it is now plant based. I bake my own bread and make my own coleslaw, but I have gone without some products as a result of wanting to source them plastic-free. Dairy is hard to source, and there are others. As a consumer, my choices were removed. If I have experienced that, people across the country are experiencing it today and there is therefore an obligation on us all to address the plastic challenge.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does my hon. Friend agree that, having heard Greta Thunberg speak today, it is time we took power back for the consumer? Would she join me in taking all our plastic from Marks and Spencer’s or Tesco’s back and dumping it in front of their stores, saying, “Look after that”? Is that not the sort of direct action that that young girl from Sweden is urging us to take?

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Absolutely—if we cannot see movement on the problem of plastics, we must move plastics to the places where they will make others move. I trust that we will take another step forward on the issue as a result of today’s debate.

The plastics strategy must set tough targets for producers and manufacturers to provide alternatives. Research is under way, as I found out recently when I met Nestlé, a major manufacturer in York. I also spoke to local businesses, and it is clear that they are frustrated too. We have heard the Government trying to bring redress item by item—whether on bags, bottles or straws—but the reality is that we need to get to the top of the supply chain and look at what is happening.

In York, the council has really failed the people of my city. Plastics, apart from bottles, are not picked up at the kerbside, and therefore end up in landfill. This weekend, as I was doing my plastic walkabout, I was horrified to learn that much of York’s recyclable waste ends up in landfill, not even going where residents believe it is going. That is not good enough. Unless the Minister sets really tough targets in her plastics strategy, it is clear that the Government will have failed. Labour in York has pledged to put in a water fountain system so that people can refill their bottles in the city and turn around the council’s current abject failure to take the matter seriously.

I was impressed when I visited York’s Biorenewables Development Centre, which uses high-pressure steam and autoclaving to separate household waste, drawing out plastics from other waste to be able to deal with them. I was also impressed by nine-year-old Mollie Nicholl, who came to my surgery to teach me about ecobricks. She brought her empty plastic bottles, plastic wrappers and a wooden spoon, and showed me how to fill the bottle with the wrappers and then screw on the top, making an ecobrick, which would then be collected and made into either garden furniture or play equipment—new plastic capturing. She is York’s plastic eco warrior.

York’s climate strikers are incensed by plastic around them, as I found out when I met them recently. We owe it to all in our communities to take action, so I have five things I want to ask the Minister. Will she expand the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator to take on the policing of cutting carbon and plastic from production and manufacturing in the supply chain? That seems an appropriate place do to it. Will she set stringent plastic targets, so that organic-based packaging rather than polymers are at the forefront, and polymers are phased out by 2025? Will the UK contribute to the plastic clear-up operations in the oceans, which we know has begun here at home? Will she champion ecobricks, as Mollie in my constituency has, and other forms of reuse for plastic, during the transition phase? Finally, will she set tough targets on recycling for local authorities and support them in driving change?

Our planet is breaking under the consumption-obsessed society we live in. As we have been elected to this place, we have been given a platform to radically change our world. Will the Minister use her power, as Labour will, to transform the local, national and global conversation and action, by being drastic on plastic?

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour/Co-operative, Swansea West 7:04 pm, 23rd April 2019

I will be brief, Mr Hosie. We know that Extinction Rebellion are protesting outside, and I completely condone that. We know that by 2050 there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea. We know the fossil fuel manufacturers are given near trillion-dollar subsidies, and to a certain extent are diverting that money into plastic, because 80% of fossil fuels cannot be exploited. We know the only way to reduce the consumption of plastic is to raise its price. The way to do that is to tax plastic and to have cleaner, more homogenous plastic, which is more cost-effective to recycle.

The Government have paid lip service to a plastics tax—I welcome the comments from Sir Vince Cable—but they will not bring it in until 2022. We need to be robust, assertive and immediate. On the timeframe for universal recyclability of plastic, we are looking at 2042, and in Europe, it is 2030. It should be 2025.

The producer responsibility obligations system is not working. I would welcome a deposit scheme. We clearly need taxes on bottles, and refill schemes in local shops, so that people can refill their bottle. People ask, “What can I do?” and throw away the bottles because they are so cheap. If we taxed them, we would be in a better situation.

There is emerging technology, such as gasification, that enables plastics to be broken down to produce energy in a way that does not impact on climate change. We should be investing in research and development. We should be putting more pressure on supermarkets. I completely agree with my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman, who says that people should be encouraged to take their plastic and dump it back on the supermarkets. They would respond. It is all very well people being apologists for the supermarkets and saying that they are doing as much as they can; they pretend to do more than they do. They need to do much more. We cannot continue to export all our plastics, and sweep the problem under the table. We need to take action immediately.

By the time we have the tax that is proposed by the Government, an extra 70,000 tonnes of plastic will have been deposited. That is why I tabled my Plastics Bill, which would set out a fiscal strategy, and introduce a plastics agency and a global target for the overall amount of plastic, in which Britain’s amount reduced over time. It would also give our nations an imperative to make sure that target was delivered.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 7:07 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Vince Cable on securing this important and topical debate. I start by telling hon. Members that I went into Waverley station with an empty cup of coffee to get rid of. The girl said to me, “You can take that back to where you got it,” because there were no bins there, but that was not going to work, as I bought it in King’s Cross in London, so I just handed it to Costa.

For those of us who were born in the ’50s, plastics have gone from being space-age wonder materials to underpinning modern life. Plastic pipes, containers and container liners provide hygienic and durable ways to transport water, foodstuffs and medicines.

If the whole lifecycle of the product is taken into account, plastics can be better for the environment, if they are recycled or otherwise disposed of safely. Lightweight, durable containers cut down on transport costs and reduce waste. The shelf life of perishable goods and products can be greatly extended with plastic packaging. Bagged bananas have a shelf life of 36 days, compared with 15 days if sold loose. A cucumber that lasts three days unpackaged will last two weeks if covered in plastic. Around 10 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK annually, and that is associated with 22 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, but 70% of that waste is absolutely avoidable. Plastic components weigh less and can last longer than non-plastic alternatives, and using plastic components where possible has allowed vehicle and aircraft manufacturers to reduce vehicle weight and improve efficiency.

Six per cent. of global oil production is used to manufacture plastic, but that is projected to rise to 20% by 2050, increasing its share of the global annual carbon budget from 1% to 15%. In 2012, plastic manufacture accounted for approximately 390 million tonnes of carbon monoxide emissions. The potent greenhouse gases methane and ethylene are released by most common plastics as they degrade. The durability of plastics and their resilience to biodegradation is a double-edged sword. It is key to their usefulness to us, but ecologically lethal.

Some 70% of the litter in the sea is plastic. Plastics fragment as they degrade and are a danger to all animals of all sizes, and they threaten our whole food chain. Large pieces can entangle or choke animals and birds. Seabirds collect fragments of fishing gear when they build their nests. Strangled birds hanging from cliff sides are an ever more familiar sight in Scottish seabird colonies. Smaller fragments can be mistaken for food items and eaten, causing marine creatures and the animals feeding on them to starve while their stomachs are full. Some plastic products release chemicals as they degrade. Plastics can also absorb and later release persistent pollutants. The risk those microplastics pose to humans is absolutely unknown. A littered environment reduces human quality of life and deters visitors.

As has been mentioned, China and the rest of south-east Asia are no longer willing to be a dump for the world’s dirty plastic. In January 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, heard that the Chinese decision to ban the importing of heavily contaminated plastic and paper waste reduced such waste exports from the UK to China by 40%. This caused a crisis in the UK recycling industry. The Chinese gave ample warning of their intent to restrict these waste types. The ban itself was announced by the Chinese Government in July 2017, but warnings of an impending crisis came from the British Plastics Federation as early as 2012. Furthermore, the Chinese Government have been cracking down on heavily contaminated recycling entering the country via a succession of programmes since 2006.

The EAC heard last January that the UK Government had their head in the sand. I asked witnesses from trade associations and professional bodies whether the UK Government had been pressed hard enough for action. Their view was that the Government were interested in meeting them and monitoring the situation, but would not act to help. Indeed, those trade bodies had seen more engagement with industry from the devolved Administrations.

The UN’s climate experts tell us that we have only 11 years left to avert a total climate catastrophe. Transitioning to a simpler economy is an urgent and essential task, and waste management is an essential part of that. Has the Minister had any discussions on harmonised traffic-light labelling systems—matching product-to-bin systems—across devolved Administrations, local authorities and even industries? Having visited the Coca-Cola plant in East Kilbride, I know that it is very keen on having a harmonised product-to-bin system.

As has been mentioned, public awareness has never been higher. “The Blue Planet” and David Attenborough’s latest calls to arms against climate change, “Climate ChangeThe Facts” on BBC 1 and “Our Planet” on Netflix, are must-watches for everybody. Scotland was the first part of the UK to commit to introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. The Scottish Government are open to co-designing the scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, being mindful that nothing happens in isolation. I believe the UK Environment Secretary, the Minister and the devolved Administrations met at a summit on this matter, and the principles—as far as I know—were agreed in July. The Scottish Government support the EU’s targets for all packaging to be easily recyclable or reusable by 2030. They are a founding member of the Plastics Pact, which aims to deliver that target sooner and press the UK Government to commit to maintaining the current protections and standards on plastic packaging.

In January, The Guardian and Greenpeace revealed that the UK Government spent months behind the scenes opposing the EU’s target to recycle 66% of urban waste by 2035. That is behind the Scottish Government’s target of 70% by 2025, and throws into doubt the UK Government’s pledge to develop ambitious new future targets and milestones, especially since—as far as I know—DEFRA has been singled out as the Department least well prepared for the UK’s departure from the EU. That does not fill me with reassurance.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich 7:14 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Vince Cable on securing this important and detailed debate. He was absolutely right to say that recycling and pollution are not necessarily linked. Indeed, climate change and pollution are not necessarily linked. We need to deal with both: we need to ensure that recycling is there to deal with the climate change impact of plastics, but also that we are preventing pollution.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who made interventions, all of which were helpful in this particular case. I thank Bill Grant, who is absolutely right to mention that we had extensive deposit schemes in the past. In fact, I can remember the first time I ever got involved in any sort of political campaigning, when I was at school: we tried to persuade Corona not to stop using a deposit scheme for its bottles. It did stop, and went out of business—we can put two and two together. Most bottles are actually recycled in Germany, precisely because they still keep deposit return schemes.

My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell mentioned the incredible level of self-restraint that she has shown over the past 40 days and 40 nights. I do not believe it is possible or reasonable to expect the majority of our population to make that sort of choice. We need to make it more convenient for people to go plastic-free.

My hon. Friend Geraint Davies outlined the importance of making reduction, reuse and recycling more financially viable than just making things and chucking them away. John Mc Nally was right to point out that some applications of plastic are correct, but a lot are not. Where we use plastic, we must ensure that it is not just claimed to be recyclable, but is actually recycled. The convenience of plastic makes it the fastest-growing waste material, but its use is not always appropriate. Most plastic items have a limited lifespan and cannot be reused. However the most-used plastics, such as PET and HDPE, are readily recyclable, and the main difficulty is getting them from the point of use to the point of recycling.

Councils have been successful in establishing recycling infrastructure and services: 99% of local authorities in the UK currently collect plastic bottles, and 77% collect pots, tubs and trays in kerbside recycling. However, all of that costs money, and if we are going to increase our recycling rate at all we will need the people who do the work—the collection authorities, the disposal authorities and the recycling plant—to be economically viable. In the future, and I hope sooner rather than later, there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that the producers of the plastics pay for them to be recycled. For bottles, that may well be best done by a deposit return scheme, as in Germany. We welcome the Government’s commitment to investigating deposit return schemes and to the principle of extended producer responsibility.

The requisite sense of urgency in the Government’s resources and waste strategy appears to be lacking. Recycling in this country has flatlined. Between 2000 and 2010, under the last Labour Government, household recycling increased by 235%. However, after years of austerity, local government, which is responsible for waste and recycling, has been left underfunded and understaffed. While Labour-run Wales has accelerated ahead, achieving a national recycling rate of approximately 63%, England has flatlined at around 44% since 2011, and is set to miss Europe-wide targets of 50% by 2020.

It will take time to introduce an effective producer-pays system. In the meantime, our local authorities need the capital investment and revenue to maintain their recycling collections, let alone improve them. Local authorities currently have an £8 billion funding gap; unless that it is filled, it is unrealistic to expect them to do anything additional.

The right hon. Member for Twickenham is right to say that there is high public interest in recycling, particularly plastics, and a greater awareness of where our waste ends up, in part down to “Blue Planet” and other programmes. Since China started to refuse the UK’s poor quality recyclables and waste in 2018, the UK has been exporting waste to countries with some of the highest levels of ocean plastic pollution. Some south-east Asian counties are also moving towards a ban.

We need to encourage the UK to be more responsible for our waste closer to home, and to recycle in the UK—not export our waste. We need to take the opportunity of the current political support to drive a green transformation into an efficient and productive green economy with new, green jobs. We need to clean up our natural environment and halt the flow of plastic and other waste into our oceans. It is time to put actions behind the national waste strategy for England. It is time to show Government leadership.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:19 pm, 23rd April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Sir Vince Cable on securing this important debate on plastics recycling. I also congratulate Hugh Gaffney on being the only Member to intervene and stay to listen to the response. I am conscious that most of this issue is devolved, but I am aware of his passion for ensuring that there are improvements.

I welcome the other contributions to this important debate. A number of hon. Members highlighted that this is not a dilemma. We need less plastic waste, but we must recognise the benefits that plastic can bring in improving the environment, such as by lowering carbon and reducing the use of other common materials, including paper and glass. As John Mc Nally pointed out, the use of some plastic can reduce food waste. In other cases, it is not always necessary to use plastic. Rachael Maskell said she felt terribly frustrated when she went shopping. The Government have encouraged plastic-free aisles, and she will see that more and more supermarkets are making it more straightforward for people not to have to pick up a plastic bag, although for many consumers that is still convenient.

On the resources and waste strategy, to which hon. Members have referred, the Government are clear that we want to move towards a circular economy, in which raw materials are used efficiently and waste is minimised, so we have set high recycling ambitions. I am very conscious that, as Sandy Martin said, the amount of recycling has not increased greatly in the past few years. It has somewhat plateaued, although it has continued to increase in England.

Wales in leading the way, and Northern Ireland has made a big improvement, driven by its collection of food waste. England is third of the nations, and Scotland is fourth. I will not say that it is last, because that would be a bit insulting; I know how ambitious it is. Nevertheless, the nations continue to learn from each other. We continue to collaborate, and are consulting together on what we are doing about things such as the producer responsibility schemes, because we believe that there is a good reason to try to have a consistent approach across the UK, especially considering that, once we leave the European Union, this will certainly become a devolved matter. I am pleased that the Governments of the four nations have recognised why it would be sensible to collaborate in that regard.

We are setting a 65% municipal recycling rate by 2035 and a minimum 70% recycling rate for packaging waste by 2030. It is our intention that, by 2025, all plastic packaging placed on the market will be recyclable, reusable or compostable, and we want to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. A number of uses of plastic are well considered. In particular, a lot of single-use plastic gets used in the NHS, and it would not necessarily be appropriate to want to get away from that. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can manage it at the end of its life so it is more environmentally beneficial.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will take an intervention, but I have little time to respond to the points that have already been made.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour/Co-operative, Swansea West

Some people can recall a world in which we could go into supermarkets and buy meat and other products without plastic, such as tins. Does the Minister accept that it is possible to envision such a world? If we tax things, we can move towards it more quickly. I obviously accept that some plastics are necessary, but all should be recycled more quickly.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Well, perhaps, but the hon. Gentleman should be aware that emissions would be generated because heavier goods would be transported around the country—around the world, in fact. That is why we need a balanced approach. This is not solely about plastic. The hon. Gentleman wants us to move back to just using paper bags and glass products, but that would be worse for carbon, so we need a balanced approach. The important thing is to have a lifecycle approach that considers the production, consumption and end of life of the plastics that are placed on the market.

At the production stage, plastics should be designed to be easily reusable or recyclable. As it stands today, all plastic is technically recyclable. It is just that the economics do not necessarily encourage that, and sometimes the amount of contamination prevents that. At the consumption stage, we want consumers to be encouraged to use more reusable items. They should be able to identify easily how plastics should be recycled. At the end-of-life stage, more plastics should be reused, repaired or recycled.

As has been said, there are many benefits to plastic, which does not decompose and can last centuries. However, it can end up as litter in the natural environment, and there are concerns about the fact that litter on land often ends up in the oceans. There are problems with the pollution that can arise from plastics, so we want to prevent plastic waste from occurring in the first place, as well as managing it better when it does. Our strategy sets out how we intend to do that through a more sustainable use of resources to ensure we waste less and reuse, recycle and repair more. Moving away from a “take, make, use and throw” approach, and creating a circular model for plastics, means that the environment, the economy and society will all benefit.

As I have already said, one of the keys to this is design. The Government are currently consulting on extending producer responsibility for packaging. That is a powerful policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for the product it places on the market extends to the post-use stage. Producers will pay the full net cost of managing packaging waste. The differentiation in the levy will incentivise products that are easier to reuse or recycle. As announced in the Budget last year, the Government are consulting on the introduction of a specific tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled plastic content to stimulate demand for recycled plastic. That should encourage manufacturers to produce more sustainable packaging and will create demand for more recycled material.

The two schemes will work together coherently to improve recycling rates, and the revenue collected from these measures will enable investment in further action to address the issues surrounding single-use plastics, waste and litter, and help improve the waste system in the UK. We are working closely with the industry, businesses and consumers to ensure their views are taken forward in new schemes that may affect them. We are supporting businesses that are already taking on the challenge of reducing plastic waste and improving recycling.

The right hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the carrier bag charge. He will be aware that, in our consultation, we are discussing extending it to all retailers and increasing the charge. The deposit return scheme is a big challenge for our country. It is easy to imagine what could happen at the front end. We are consulting on two potential options relating to what people tend to consume on the go, as opposed to all plastic bottles and cans.

The back end of the system is more complicated. I have been on a learning journey to different countries in the European Union to look at how we might do that. We are consulting on that. The hon. Member for Falkirk is right to say that Scotland is taking steps forward in that regard, and we are in discussion with it. We are also looking at how we can provide a new product labelling scheme, such as eco-labels, to help consumers make better decisions. We would like to see greater consistency of labelling so consumers know what they can recycle.

On households, we are not alone in the European Union in having kerbside collections, but we want to ensure that there is greater consistency in what councils collect—not necessarily how they collect it, but what they collect. We are having a further consultation on that at the moment, and are introducing separate food waste collections, which will improve recycling rates and, if they are treated appropriately, should be a better way of reducing carbon emissions. By creating a reliable, vibrant market, with Government support through the levies that will be introduced in the extended producer responsibility system, we should be able to support councils in making that innovation change.

Innovation by industry will continue to be necessary. We have helped by pledging £20 million to the plastics research and innovation fund, and a further £20 million to the plastics and waste investment fund. Those funds are aimed at encouraging innovation to boost recycling and reduce littering. Through the industrial strategy challenge fund, we are investing up to £66 million towards the development of smart, sustainable plastic packaging. We also support WRAP, which was asked about earlier, and the UK Plastics Pact, which bring together businesses across the entire plastics value chain to make the necessary improvements.

The Government have set ambitious targets. It is important that we work with consumers and industry to reduce plastic waste. Our strategy considers the whole lifecycle of plastics. In that regard, I believe that once we get through this consultation and introduce the necessary measures in the Environment Bill, where we do not have powers already, we can really work together to tackle this plastics challenge.

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats 7:29 pm, 23rd April 2019

I do not have a great deal to add in the last 30 seconds. We all understand the chemistry, and the technology is given. The Government’s objectives are very clear, and there is a great deal of consensus around them. The main area of disagreement is about the urgency and pace at which this is being done. Like my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael, Geraint Davies has a Bill to introduce a foreshortened timetable for dealing with unnecessary waste. I very much hope that through that or the Government’s action, we will speed up the measures that we all agree need to be taken.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).