Plastics Recycling

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:07 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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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.