Plastics Recycling

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:14 pm on 23rd April 2019.

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Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 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.