Plastics Recycling

Part of the debate – 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 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.