Plastic Food and Drink Packaging — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 24th October 2019.

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Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 1:30 pm, 24th October 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Sixteenth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2017-19, Plastic food and drink packaging, HC 2080.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. It is also a pleasure to see the new Minister in her place and the shadow Minister, Sandy Martin, here as well.

Plastic waste has been at the forefront of public interest for the last few years. There is, quite rightly, outrage about the impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment and about the amounts of recyclable waste exported, only to pollute other countries. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee set out to examine whether enough is being done to reduce the use of plastic and properly manage waste in the food and drink sector.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that plastic is everywhere for a reason. For food and drink, it is lightweight and flexible, and it ensures high standards of hygiene. We should also remember that when plastic is used properly, it can help us to prevent food waste, which is a big contributor to carbon emissions. We do not want to increase the amount of food that is wasted.

Plastic’s durability is both a blessing and a curse. The properties that make it useful for food preservation also mean that it lingers in our seas for decades. We need to manage our waste better. More materials need to be captured for recycling. The Committee was supportive of the Government’s proposal to introduce consistency in recycling collections and simpler labelling for consumers. We would like to see that across the whole country.

Unfortunately, it is not particularly clear how much of our plastic waste is actually recycled. The Government often cite a 46% recycling rate for plastic packaging. However, businesses that produce fewer than 50 tonnes of packaging per year do not have to report on how much they place on the market or recycle, so there is a gap in the figures. We think that threshold should be lowered to 1 tonne of packaging. I ask the Minister to consider that.

On top of that, 60% of what is classed as “recycled” is actually exported abroad. Members will have seen media reports that our plastic exports can end up in countries where they are landfilled or burned instead, which can really affect villagers and others in those countries. We must recycle our own waste. We do not currently know how much plastic waste is recycled—it is likely to be less than 46%—and, if we cannot measure recycling, we cannot know whether policy changes are having the right effect. It is vital that we get the right figures.

The introduction of a deposit return scheme was another focus of our inquiry. We heard convincing evidence that a DRS would boost recycling of plastic bottles. I am convinced that if plastic bottles are to be recycled, that must be done through a reverse-vending machine so that the same bottle can be made again from that plastic. Hon. Members may ask: why am I saying that? It is because most recycled plastic is not used to make the same item again; we get a much lower-quality waste plastic. We need to ensure that the label, the top and all those things are recyclable so that we can make another bottle out of the bottle that went through the reverse-vending machine.

We have also heard concerns from local authorities that taking that valuable material away from kerbside collection would undermine the viability of their wider recycling efforts. We therefore recommend that the Government monitor carefully the financial impact on local authorities of introducing a deposit return scheme.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

In Northern Ireland, we already have kerbside collections—indeed, we have moved on marvellously with recycling materials. It is incredible what a household can do when it commits to recycling. Has the Chair of the Select Committee had an opportunity to look at any of the other regions—Northern Ireland, for instance—where kerbside collection is already in place and working well?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

We did not look at the situation in Northern Ireland, although I understand that that is a good method of collection. In England, we found that because there are so many authorities with so many different contracts, there are totally different methods for what is recycled where. To put on my local government hat from many years ago, local government likes its own views and ways of dealing with things. However, in this case, we need to know how to recycle properly.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman is very kind to give way again. In Northern Ireland—let us be honest, we are a smaller region—we may have six or 10 councils working together. Perhaps that is something that England could look at.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that Northern Ireland is naturally a more compact, smaller community. Recycling works quite well in Wales, where again there are fewer authorities, which can come together better. Given its size and the number of its authorities, England is more difficult. Somehow or other, the Government must send down an edict to local authorities to pull them together. Some local authorities will have long-term contracts that will take a while to get out of, but the Government must pull them together, because what we recycle and how we do it here in London is totally different from what we do on the farm back in Somerset, for instance.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

During our inquiry, witnesses regularly made the point that kerbside collections and all the legislation can be in place, but if the general public do not take part, stiff penalties in some shape or form are required to force them to. Otherwise, we will have a major problem—more so than now.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I agree, but before we bring in stiff penalties we must ensure that there is a similar system all over the country. Otherwise, people can quite rightly say, “We didn’t know what we had to do.” The hon. Gentleman is right in his assumption, but let us get the system right. That is clear. There is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” We must keep going with people to make sure they are more concerned. They are concerned about plastic and recycling and want this all to happen, but we must make sure that some of those who are not quite so keen will take part in future. We need a system with a penalty, but let us get the system similar first—perhaps a carrot before the stick.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament)

I have spent quite a bit of time working with schools in my constituency, and Commercial Primary School and Carnock Primary School are leading the field on the green agenda and sustainable development. In the last few weeks, we have also seen one of the first plastic-free hotels in Dunfermline.

There is great enthusiasm at grassroots level for recycling and how we dispose of plastic waste and waste in general, but the point, which I think the report covers, is: how do we get that linkage between local authorities, central Government and policy to ensure that we are working with communities and people, with everyone buying into the concept of looking at our environment in general and seeing how we can improve it?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. We must ensure that we explain what we are doing and what it will achieve, and that the public buy into it. I had one of my local schools come in the other day from Axminster, and they said, “What can we do for the environment?” I said, “Why don’t we work to get a water fountain in the middle of Axminster, so that you can refill your bottles rather than buying new plastic ones?”

Schools and others are buying into all this, and students go home and say to their parents, “Why haven’t you recycled this? What have you done?” There is nothing like children being critical of their parents. This is all good stuff, and I think it will work, but we need to work together to make things similar across the country—I keep repeating that, because otherwise people do not actually know what to do.

Our plastic food and drink packaging inquiry also looked at the alternative materials being used instead of plastics. Some were conventional materials, such as paper, and others were more novel, such as compostable plastics. It is easy to think that the solution is to ban plastics, particularly single-use plastics, but, as always, the truth is more complicated. We need to think about what replaces those plastics, and whether they are actually better for the environment.

The society we live in now is in danger of just doing things that make us all feel better—it is right that we do those things, but they must actually be better for the environment and not worse. We need to look at that very carefully. For example, replacing plastic with heavier paper or glass could increase the carbon emissions associated with transporting those products. Compostable plastics are becoming more common, and hon. Members will have noted that here on the estate we have switched towards compostable packaging in our catering facilities. They have probably seen it.

The downside of compostables is that they require a separate waste stream so that they can be industrially composted. They need to reach 60° before they actually compost, and if we are not careful they can end up contaminating recycling, if there are non-compostable plastics as well. They work well at a pop festival or an event where they can all be collected, but when they are mixed, it can be a problem. We found throughout the inquiry that there is a real lack of consumer understanding of waste infrastructure. On this point, we have recommended supporting compostables for “closed loop” environments such as here in Parliament, where we can better control how they are disposed of. That is essential.

The Government and industry have focused on recycling and replacing plastic packaging, but less emphasis has been placed on reducing plastics in the first place. Yet, as we know from health issues, prevention is often better than cure. We therefore looked at how to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that we use. I ask the question, “Do we always need to wrap our carrots and potatoes?” We do not. Other vegetables such as cucumbers perhaps need to be wrapped in plastic so that they last longer. We need to be thoughtful about all these things.

Consumers are increasingly interested in reusable and refillable packaging. We have already seen the shift from disposable bottles and coffee cups towards refillable drinks containers, and that is very good news. Some retailers are experimenting with refillable packaging for food too, which would mean taking our own containers when we go shopping, just as most of us now take reusable carrier bags. We must also ensure that they are clean and that retailers are able to put food in them with confidence. Some vegetables, as I said, will keep longer if wrapped in plastic, but others can be sold loose.

However, refillable packaging is a bit trickier, because it will require a huge shift in the way we shop and consume. People want to use less plastic, but they also like to maintain their lifestyle, so it is a question of getting this exactly right. We like the freedom of a disposable, on-the-go culture, and we do not all have time to remember to wash and bring our containers when we go to a supermarket. On top of that, there are questions about how many times a container would need to be reused before it becomes environmentally better than single-use packaging. We have therefore called for the Government and the Waste and Resources Action Programme to take a closer look at refillable packaging systems and find out what actually works.

Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle

As my hon. Friend will know, the food and drinks manufacturing sector is the largest manufacturing sector in our country. It is very innovative, it is a big employer and exporter, and it clearly has a major role to play in the reduction of the use of plastics. Does he agree that it is important that the Government work with the industry to look for solutions, rather than trying to impose solutions on it, as those might not actually work?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He does a great deal of work with the food and drink sector, and he is right. It is a question not only of working with the food and drink sector in this country, but of imports. As we change things—as we start to put taxes on plastic, and so on—we must ensure that our businesses here are not affected more than businesses that make the goods that we import. That is very important, and I am certain that the Minister has taken a great deal of notice of what my hon. Friend has said.

We need to take the industry with us, because they are the ones who will create the packaging in the first place and will then need to have a method of disposal through the retail system; they will need to work with retailers and consumers to ensure that we get it right.

To conclude, we in Parliament need to lead by example, by removing all single-use packaging from our catering facilities. Will the Minister work with House authorities to help us achieve a plastic-free Parliament?

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for giving way. Will he join me in congratulating Surfers Against Sewage for all the work it has done on a plastic-free Parliament? We have been doing it through the all-party parliamentary group on ocean conservation. As he says, there is some way to go—that is why I brought my own cup today rather than using the compostable ones, just in case they are not composted—but the organisation has done a good job in trying to get the parliamentary estate to change its ways.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she is an excellent member of the Select Committee and I know she has also done a great deal of work on food waste. This is important. We have all worked together with the authorities here to deliver a much better system, but we must ensure that we carry on to conclude it. That is why I ask whether the Minister will work with House authorities to help us to achieve a completely plastic-free Parliament. We have made a lot of progress, but we need to finalise it.

We also need consistency in recycling collections and simpler labelling for consumers—not just putting a green dot on things, because a green dot means nothing; it just means that somewhere along the line, something might have been recycled. It does not mean that that particular item is recyclable. When does the Minister expect new systems to be introduced—knowing her, it will be immediately—and will she commit to ensuring that businesses that produce 1 tonne of packaging per year report on how much packaging they place on the market? That is important, because a lot of plastic is coming through that is not being measured.

Finally, the most important message of our report is that reduction of plastic in the first place is the best way to prevent plastic pollution. Will the Minister work closely with the industry to ensure that we stop the use of unnecessary plastics in the first place?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Would any hon. Members wishing to speak stand up so I can see them? [Interruption.] It looks as though we have plenty of time, so there is no need for any kind of time limit.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 1:49 pm, 24th October 2019

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and Tiverton—

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I commend my hon. Friend Neil Parish—Tiverton is obviously first—for securing the debate and for all he does with his Select Committee. This is such an urgent issue, and the report is timely. It contains some helpful work and recommendations, and I hope that the Government take seriously and implement them all. It is urgent that we cut plastic pollution.

I declare an interest: I am the Member for west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, in the most beautiful constituency—that is undisputed.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I will not comment on Tiverton and Honiton again. I say that my constituency is the most beautiful because, apart from a short section that neighbours the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), we are entirely surrounded by the sea. However, although ours is a beautiful, unspoiled part of the world where every Member—as well as most of the country—gladly chooses to holiday during the summer, the truth is that we do see plastic pollution.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

My researcher loves going to Scilly; he is going there for Christmas. He was showing me in the office just now that it is 12 °C in Scilly and the sun is shining. He was rather wishing, given the weather today, that he was there. Beautiful as Bristol is, I might have to agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I welcome that intervention, and the fact that we agree on that is brilliant. The hon. Lady is right: I always say to everyone who comes down, or who wishes to, that the sun always shines—which is true, although sometimes the rain gets in between.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I can, but the clouds sometimes obscure it.

On the Isles of Scilly, where it is 12 °C and warm and beautiful, there is no hiding the fact that plastic pollution is taking its toll. I am the parliamentary species champion for the Manx shearwater, a ground-nesting bird that was in significant decline. We have been able to turn that decline around on the Isles of Scilly because we have been able to get some of those islands—they are both inhabited and uninhabited—completely clear of plastic pollution and rats. As a result, the birds are now thriving, and last year they were the fastest recovering species at risk in the UK. They nest only in two parts of the British Isles. That is an example of the immediate benefit of getting on top of this problem for wildlife.

I was shocked by something that I learned when I went on a visit to Nancledra school, which was holding an eco-fair. People took shovelfuls of sand—anyone who looked at it would have assumed that it was just ordinary sand from the beach, as it was—and poured it into water. As they did so, the plastic came to the top. Anyone who has not done that experiment should do so when they—or their member of staff—go on holiday to Cornwall. If we pour sand that looks perfectly ordinary into a bucket of water, we will find it startling how much plastic is in that water. That plastic harms our marine life, so we really must get on top of it. We will never get on top of all the minute plastic pieces that are in the sand but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton says, we can certainly stop contributing to that.

In my constituency and around the country, as we heard from Douglas Chapman, who is from way up north—I have not been here long enough to learn all the pronunciations—there is a huge amount of effort and will from people on the ground. Right across the Cornwall coastline, organisations continue to undertake regular beach cleans, and they are now moving inland because of all the plastic caught up in bushes and hedgerows. We will see less and less plastic there, but mainly because people are working so hard to clear it up.

Every year, I run an outdoor adventure camp, and I have done for 20-odd years. This year, we decided that we would be plastic free. I cannot tell hon. Members how difficult it was to run a camp for 100 young people and not bring on to the site unnecessary plastic packaging. Schools tell me exactly the same. Mounts Bay Academy in Penzance held a huge event to celebrate its plastic-free status, but staff kept telling me that they could not get suppliers to stop sending into the school stuff that was wrapped unnecessarily in single-use plastic. We need to address that, and I hope that the Government will do so as a result of this report.

There are a couple of things I want to commend. Penzance was the first town to become plastic free. Surfers Against Sewage was started in Cornwall 20 or 30 years ago, campaigning to clean up our beaches. We were pumping raw sewage into our beaches, but we have been able to address that and now we have blue flag beaches that are the most beautiful in the country. SAS staff have now rightly turned their attention to plastic, and they have done amazing work. They have been into Parliament—I am sure that most Members will have met them already—to make the case for bottle deposit schemes and legislation from the Government to change things. SAS also supports the industry to move away from unnecessary plastics.

Despite all that effort, herein lies the problem: there is still no let-up in the use of unnecessary plastic packaging. Supermarkets continue to use it for no good reason. If there is a good reason, I would be delighted if someone—perhaps the Minister—could correct me. I am an old-fashioned person of faith, and I believe that we are provided with what we need. Fruit and veg are provided with their own natural wrappers and protections. Why do our supermarkets choose to shrink-wrap cucumbers—or swedes or turnips, depending on the part of the country—and other fruit and veg? It is completely unnecessary, and it amazes me that we continue to do that.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

There is a counter-argument for some of this packaging, particularly when it comes to cucumbers. The hon. Gentleman will find people who say that if we are trying to address food waste, such packaging is the way to keep cucumbers fresh. However, the Select Committee had a really interesting session with people who are developing alternatives, and the seaweed-based alternatives in particular were absolutely fascinating. Perhaps that is the route to go down.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I completely accept that. Cutting down on food miles and getting better at using food when it is available, and from close to where it is supplied, might be part of the solution to food waste. I agree with the hon. Lady, however, and I will come to the alternatives in a moment.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I am most intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and what he said was true. Those of us who come from the countryside probably expect our potatoes to have a bit of soil with them, and maybe a wee distortion or a growth on either side. That does not really bother us. However, the housewife does not see things as we who live in the countryside see them. The housewife sees things as products and, with respect, she probably has no idea where they come from or what they are like; they just have to look good. As far as the supermarkets are concerned, products must look good; as we all know, that may not make them good.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I will not criticise my own Government, but I learned home economics in school, which taught me what cauliflowers and so on look like when picked from the ground. There is a joke around in Cornwall about children thinking that bottles of milk are literally collected from nests, rather than that milk comes from cows. However, the point has been properly made that we need to get to a place where people understand—or have the opportunity to learn, if they choose to—how food is produced, and how they can use it in a much more natural way. I will not say much more on that.

I come back to the intervention about shrink-wrapped cucumber. I accept the points that have been made, and that we can use alternatives to keep cucumbers fresh, but we cannot use the same argument for tinned vegetables. Baked beans, which are already wrapped in tins, are wrapped again in plastic. I cannot see the need for that. Some producers find that cardboard is a useful alternative. I think that the supermarkets and food packagers need to be leaned on by the Government to get rid of unnecessary single-use plastic. I do not think that there is any excuse for using it. I do not want to pick on Mr Kipling, who was a favourite of mine when I was younger, but he likes to wrap his cakes and biscuits in far too many wrappers. It would be great for people to take action about the lack of movement, not only from the Government but from some of the companies that continue to use unnecessary plastic.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife—I am sorry; I am really not familiar with his constituency—made a good point about the enthusiasm of local people. There is enormous enthusiasm and determination among the people I meet to cut plastic where possible, so I have three, or possibly four, simple asks.

First, what I hear from people is that when they buy biodegradable or compostable products, they want to know what that actually means. If we buy biodegradable nappies, as I did, how long does a nappy sit in our compost heap before it disappears? I put the nappies in my compost heap—and then I had to put them in the bin about four years later. We need to be really clear with people and have a proper legal definition of what biodegradable actually means. How long should we expect something to take to rot down? What is compostable?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

That is what we found in the inquiry. Compostable plastic has to reach 60°C; it has to be industrially composted. That will work, but not in someone’s garden. That is why the material has to be collected separately. Somehow or other that has to be explained to the public, because at the moment they are rather confused about the whole matter.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I agree, and I intended to refer to the report picking up on that point, so I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention. First, therefore, let us get that issue properly sorted out and the information communicated clearly, so that we have practical measures to deal with items described as compostable and biodegradable.

We need to support the innovation of alternatives. A number of organisations have come into this place in the last year or two, as we have talked more and more about alternatives to plastics, and demonstrated what they have produced—we heard about seaweed earlier. We need to find a way whereby Government can really encourage that research and development.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I refer back to what the Chairman of the Select Committee, Neil Parish, said: we have to get the system right. But supermarkets, of course, are sometimes governed by public health in what they should do, so it is a multi-agency decision on all of this. There needs to be a partnership, as Derek Thomas has said, to try to relieve the difficulty that we have with plastic, but this is a multi-agency situation.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I agree, and I welcome that intervention. It is true that there will be some single-use plastic that we cannot avoid. If we go into a hospital, we will find items that are wrapped for what are obviously good reasons. I will name-check now if I am permitted to, Mr Stringer. There is a large outlet—retailer—in my constituency called Thornes. It sells a lot of fruit and veg and all sorts of other items. It decided, very early after the Government launched their 25-year environment strategy in January 2018, that it would not use single-use plastic, and it has moved away from it, including for its fruit and veg. That outlet certainly compares in size to a small supermarket, so if it can do it, it must be possible for supermarkets to take greater measures than they already do. But I accept that we need real leadership from Government, and urgently.

I have two or three more asks. We need legislation—I hope that we will do this through the Environment Bill—to ban unnecessary single-use plastic. That is the only way we will get businesses to really respond and urgently develop the alternatives. We also need legislation to ensure that all remaining plastic that is necessary—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton was right to say that there is necessary plastic—can be recycled. We still purchase plastics and products that cannot be recycled, and that just needs to come to an end.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It would be remiss of me not to commend some of the supermarkets for what they are doing. In my constituency, in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Simpson and, I suspect, in everyone’s constituency, the large supermarket chains, come Friday and Saturday night, have a system whereby if a product, such as fresh fruit or veg, is coming near its end of life, they disperse the produce among community groups. As I said, that is done in my constituency, and it works exceptionally well. It does away with the loss of the product and someone gets the benefit of it. Supermarkets are chastised, but sometimes they do a lot of good things.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I am not here to beat up the supermarkets, and if I have done so, I apologise. I welcome the intervention, and the hon. Gentleman is right: in Cornwall, we have an excellent project—it is very early in the embryonic stage—called Hive, which is doing just what he describes. Already this year, it has taken 8 tonnes of food from the local supermarket, turned it into nutritious meals and distributed it to families who need it.

There is some really good work, and supermarkets are playing an important part in that. Obviously, it saves them a lot of money as well, because they then do not have the costs of having to dispose of the products. All I am saying is that much more can be done across supermarkets and retailers. If there are people, as there are in Cornwall, who are determined to reduce their use of single-use plastic in particular, they must be allowed to do that. They must be able to buy items and products that are not unnecessarily wrapped.

I want to draw the House’ s attention, before I conclude, to one fantastic piece of technology that has been developed in the UK, supported by Government funding. Called the HERU—home energy resource unit—it is the solution when we just cannot get rid of or cannot stop altogether the use of plastics and other items in our house. This appliance can at the moment be purchased and go alongside our home—outside—and every piece of rubbish from our home, such as nappies, coffee cups and plastic packaging, can be dropped into it. The rubbish is incinerated, which deals with the 60° issue, and then that generates energy for our home. At the moment, it is a brand-new product and an expensive appliance to purchase, but it would be great, as Government move forward on the issue of decarbonising our nation and addressing the question of how we get rid of waste sustainably, to look at an innovation such as the HERU to see how that can be used to support homes and communities and even to help councils to get on top of the challenge that they have.

I shall return to the Isles of Scilly, as it were, once more. They collect very little in the way of council tax from their residents: just over 2,000 people live there. They spend hundreds of thousands of pounds every year moving rubbish from the Isles of Scilly to the mainland and wherever it goes from there. A piece of technology such as the HERU could be the solution for the Isles of Scilly in seriously reducing their carbon footprint, but also their costs, so it would be great if the Minister could continue to work with me and with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see how we can support the Isles of Scilly to use such innovation to address many of their challenges.

Thank you, Mr Stringer: you have been very patient.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 2:06 pm, 24th October 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Derek Thomas, whose constituency includes the Scilly Isles.

Plastic packaging and its impacts on the environment, for many of us and certainly in my case, burst into our consciousness when Sir David Attenborough put a spotlight on the impacts that our activities are having beneath the waves. Perhaps it is because my hon. Friend and I both represent coastal constituencies that that really hit home. I probably do not have quite as much coast around my constituency as he does, but I do have in my area the extremely sunny Selsey, the Witterings, which also has blue flag beaches, Bracklesham Bay, Chichester harbour itself, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and Bosham. This issue really matters to people in my constituency, because the coast really matters—for many reasons, ranging from tourism to fishing.

Those programmes about plastic really did cut through. So much so that some surveys have even suggested—get this—that the British public care more about plastic pollution than Brexit. Obviously, being in this place, we find that incredibly hard to believe, but apparently 82% of people are now trying to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that they throw away, and I know from meeting people across my constituency that they feel the same. Everyone wants to do the right thing. I am always struck by the fact that the British people are very good at trying to do the right thing, but often we confuse them with mixed messages. The education that we give is not sufficient. The situation is so difficult because we have introduced systems that are non-standardised and are incredibly difficult for people to follow.

The recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Neil Parish, whom I thank for securing this debate, highlights the huge amount of work ahead of us if we are truly to get to grips with this issue. I fully agree with many of the recommendations in the report. It was a very thorough report, on which the Chair and the other members of the Select Committee are to be congratulated.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament)

On consistency across the UK and trying to have a more joined-up approach, in Scotland, we are about to launch the deposit return scheme. As Jim Shannon has said, there are good examples from across the country, which we can evaluate and spread wider, to share that benefit across the UK.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

The hon. Gentleman is right. We have an opportunity to standardise a new scheme—well, an old scheme that has been brought back—that we are not introducing. I hope the Minister takes note that we should be working together to ensure we have standardised schemes.

We need to get to grips with the current situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned, the report rightly emphasises the current inadequacy in the monitoring of plastic usage. That impacts our ability to accurately calculate our usage. Some surveys suggest that we are putting about 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging into the UK market each year, but we need to do more to know exactly how much we are using.

Our priority must be to use less plastic. There is a whole host of solutions to help us achieve that. We have seen fantastic results from the 5p plastic bag, which led to a significant reduction, with 15.6 million fewer bags used since 2015. There is scope to extend that to other forms of packaging and products where suitable alternatives exist.

We all know that immediate changes can be made. The thing that bugs me is crisps: every packet I buy is half empty. Introducing regulation around packaging, so that it is designed around product size, instead of making things look bigger, would be a good start. Many shops and some supermarkets are going further.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

As my friend, Douglas Chapman, mentioned, some of the schemes run in Scotland have been done in Northern Ireland, too. The plastic bag charge has been incredibly successful in Northern Ireland, to such an extent that the use of plastic bags has reduced to about 20% or 25%—a massive reduction. It has been successful because people want it to be successful, because children tell their parents that they must do it and because that money goes back into society and can help environmental projects. We should be pushing more on that.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

I completely agree. As well as being influenced by children, consumer behaviour can take some time to change. I remember coming home from this place late at night and I would never have plastic bags with me to go shopping—I am sure many of us have done the same—but I have solved that problem by buying one of these little fold-up bags, so at least I always have that. We also have reusable plastic bottles. I have lost mine again today. I do not know how many I have lost. I am sure my impact on the environment in lost water bottles is greater than what I have saved, so now I have taken to reusing this plastic bottle. I think I am not supposed to refill it, but I do anyway.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to move towards being plastic-free. Everywhere we go, we see more and more plastic. Once we become conscious of it, that is it, we see it everywhere. Some supermarkets are moving to packaging-free aisles and even the funny-shaped potatoes, which my friend, Jim Shannon, referred to—I have seen them with a little bit of soil on them, but I am sure that is just for authenticity.

Last year, I opened Stansted Park farm shop, in my constituency. The whole business has an environmentally friendly ethos. Most of their produce is loose. It has drastically reduced all plastic use. There is a future model in package-free and refill shops, similar to the old-fashioned way. My grandmother used to have glass jars for everything. We used to take them to the shops and they would be refilled from huge sacks. I can see the hon. Member for Strangford nodding, because he remembers the same. We are obviously around the same age.

E-commerce could play an important role in this area by delivering food in reusable boxes on a subscription or bespoke order model. We need to do something about e-commerce. I do not know if you have noticed this, Mr Stringer, but when I order my stuff, it comes in several different deliveries, with several different delivery drivers coming to my house two or three times a day. Maybe I am just a prolific shopper, but they could deliver them by a more transport-friendly mechanism. Moving to online shopping does not necessarily mean it is environmentally friendly, so we need to encourage those businesses, as well.

The humble cucumber has been mentioned a few times. Apparently, wrapped, they have a shelf-life of 15 days when chilled, but only nine days when unwrapped. That is true. They go all soft when they are unwrapped, and they are inedible. Removing plastics in some cases can increase other forms of waste. I do not think there is much market for an end-of-life cucumber. Other forms of waste and emissions are released when we consider the entire carbon budget of products. We need to get this right.

I am still driving a diesel car. Why? Because I followed the advice and bought a diesel car. Now, of course, I cannot get rid of it. The market share of diesel cars went from something like 14% to 65%. Everybody followed the advice and then we realised the advice was wrong. We must get the advice right. There are many alternatives, as Kerry McCarthy suggested, such as seaweeds and potato starch wrapping. That innovation will come the more the Government incentivise innovation.

Most of us have the ambition to use less single-use plastic. Many people now use alternatives. I try to use less in my day-to-day life. I mentioned my water bottle. I also gave up plastic for Lent. It was a nightmare. It was incredibly different and I had to change my whole life for six weeks. I chose an easier option this time, because it was so difficult to give up plastic for six weeks. We need to make this easy. We are consumers and we simply will not do it, if it is incredibly difficult and everybody must carry around glass jars and things that do not fit into everyday life.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady referred to consumer behaviour. As I was saying to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, the greatest scourge of this modern age is probably takeaways. I am in the takeaways regularly, but I am talking about the materials they use to wrap the product in. I am old enough—I do not think the hon. Lady is, despite what she says—to remember fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and they tasted great. This system does not allow that to happen. Some of the takeaway companies have come up with some ideas for reducing the products they use. I think the Chairman is looking at me—I think this is an important point. If we want to do something specific and great, we should look at methods to reduce takeaway packaging. That would make a magnificent change to the disposables market.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

I completely agree. There were some mentions of takeaways in the report. We could also not have as many takeaways. That is another thing that has changed in the last 20 to 30 years: we eat a lot more takeaway food. It is not very good for us, so there are many reasons, not only environmental, to cut out takeaway food to some degree, and to use more locally sourced products and to cook ourselves. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned home economics. I cannot say that my home economics classes were very successful. When I brought my rock cakes home, my father said he now understood where the name came from and I have not made a cake since.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

It was harsh, but, unfortunately, it was true.

Making it easy for people to use less is the first thing. Recycling has a major role to play. We have all said that we need to standardise recycling. Between my home in London and my home in Petworth what and how I can recycle is completely different. When I go back to my parents in Knowsley, their system is not only different, but the opposite of what I do at home in Petworth, so I am always putting things in the wrong bin. Even things such as colours could be made so much easier. We have allowed every council to design it. I think that is driven by the design of the equipment at their local recycling centre, what it can do, and how it manages bottle tops and various bits of plastic. That has driven the standards, just by what local authorities have invested in for their recycling facilities.

As part of the endeavours to increase recycling rates, the Government have proposed a new tax system to ensure that at least 30% of packaging is made from recycled material, and I fully support that direction of travel. However, I also think that the Committee’s recommendation to have a more modulated tax system might be more effective in incentivising the use of a greater percentage of recycled material.

We have talked about the deposit return scheme. When I was reading about it, I remember thinking, yet again, “That sounds almost exactly like what used to happen many years ago.” I remember the Alpine lemonade man coming round when I was a child. The bottles then were glass. We used to collect them; in fact, it was the only way we made any pocket money. In fact, for today’s children, there would be a financial incentive for them to collect all of this plastic if they could make some money out of it.

There is not a single school that any of us go into in which we are not asked about insects that are no longer around, which we never even knew existed. Children today are so well educated on the environment; indeed, they are already forcing a generational change. We have a beach school at Chidham, run by one of my schools, and I will ask the staff if they have done the sand experiment for our area. We also have forest schools. I go to schools in Southbourne, Sidlesham, Harting, Loxwood and Rake, and they all have eco-warriors and eco-councils. The questions I get asked in schools are the hardest questions I get; I can talk about Brexit all day long, but with some of these environmental questions, the children have studied to a much greater degree than we ever did. In fact, we did not do any of that in school and now we are struggling to catch up. The children really have a fantastic approach and I am pretty sure that if they were incentivised with cash, they would make sure that they collected everything for deposit return schemes, because it would be a good way of topping up their pocket money.

The 1st Chichester Brownies unit in Christchurch wrote to me recently to ask me to support its plastic promise, which of course I have agreed to do. It aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution and to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. So those children are not only telling their parents what to do but telling their MPs what to do, which is very welcome. In the letter I received, it was obvious that the Brownies were very excited by the deposit return scheme; they really welcomed it and I can see them going round in their uniforms to pick up all the plastic, and making some cash in the meantime. Probably, that cash will go to good causes, because that is another thing that children get involved in.

I will conclude by emphasising the importance of international co-operation in tackling this issue. Currently, of the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastics that enter the oceans each year, the US, the UK and Europe collectively contribute about 2%. Therefore, the Government’s investment of over £60 million to help the Commonwealth nations improve their waste management is vital and is the right approach. We have to show leadership and there is much we can do to help other countries. That would also make a massive impact. I hope that we can continue our domestic journey of self-improvement in this area, and I believe the best way to instil change abroad is to lead by example at home. I also look forward to seeing the technology and innovation that will rise to this challenge, to make sure that we free our world from plastic pollution.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 2:23 pm, 24th October 2019

As always, Mr Stringer, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. I am cautiously optimistic—maybe even optimistic—that she has the ability to deliver improvements on environmental issues for this Government, and that is not a first: I believe it.

I congratulate Neil Parish on securing this particular debate. I agree with the hon. Member and I share his concerns on the gap figures, our export figures and the systems of collection. I think that we are all on the same pilgrimage on this matter. As a point of information for him, a water fountain will be installed in my constituency by Scottish Water on 31 October. I might be going to another destination that day—maybe even one from the Prime Minister—but I hope that I can manage to get back to my constituency. It is exactly the same thing as Gillian Keegan mentioned—people will be able to fill their bottle of water in the street, as was normal further back than she can go. Fountains were common in every town and city.

Regarding the other interventions, in particular that by Derek Thomas, I am extremely intrigued to hear about the schools the and initiatives that are happening; I will come on to that issue later on.

The hon. Member for Chichester was absolutely right about the 5p charge on plastic bags. That initiative has been a success and the easiest way to witness that success is to consider the lack of plastic bags lying about the streets. Before, there were so many that it was a pitiful and disgraceful sight. We could see them around every supermarket; indeed, flung about everywhere we went. So I am impressed by the hon. Lady’s little bag and I might purchase one myself soon.

The plastic waste and the crippling cost of it to our planet, with debris that lasts forever, simply has to cease. If we want to change the world, we should get busy in our own little corner of it; I have believed that for a very long time and we should all do that.

At this point, I must declare a non-financial interest. I am a member of CGI, the community green initiative, in Falkirk, and of the Communities along the Carron Association, or CATCA. I am also trying to establish youth climate ambassadors in Falkirk schools, and an all-party parliamentary group on youth action and climate change, to make children’s voices heard in this Parliament, the devolved Administrations, local authorities and possibly even—with a bit of good luck—at COP 20 next year in Glasgow.

The Committee’s report highlights that it is important to engage with young people about recycling, because they often educate their parents, and we must be mindful of that.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament)

I am just looking at a document on the sustainable development goals: No. 4 is on education and No. 13 is on climate change. No. 4 says that all learners should

“acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”.

In Scotland, that fits very well, for example, with the curriculum for excellence, whereby all schools encourage their pupils to be responsible citizens. So, regarding my hon. Friend’s proposed all-party group to support young people in their efforts, he can put me down to be No. 1 on the list. I am sure that some other Members will also be happy to join him in his efforts.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with him; in fact, it has already been very encouraging to see the number of Members who have requested to join the APPG. We must engage with future decision makers, who will come from all pairts, not just from middle-class backgrounds, and with children who have got little voice. The point of the APPG is to bring that out. I have met the director of education in Falkirk. He will try to get all the local schools to participate and try to identify children who normally do not have a voice, and to bring them forward to participate.

Even going round various schools, such as St Bernadette’s primary school in Falkirk, I have been astonished by seven and eight-year-olds, with their in-depth knowledge of what is happening, and what they knew about palm oil and the devastation it causes to the Amazon, the lungs of the world. They are aware of what is going on and Greta Thunberg must be praised for her efforts on this issue; she has brought it into our living rooms.

All of us know of the very successful environmental leaders and community litter clean-up organisations in our constituencies. There are many such examples of volunteers across Falkirk, the rest of Scotland and indeed the world. I believe that a world conversion is taking place in how we treat this planet and how we lead our lives. That behavioural change is happening, and not before time, because we just do not have time on our side.

What impact do the real ultimate decision-makers have on our daily lives, to reduce waste? Well, I will have to get a wee bit political here, Minister, because the austerity measures of successive Tory Governments have held local authorities back and restrained them from delivering improved recycling services in England. Spending on the environment has been cut by 20% and half of English local authorities are planning further cuts to services.

I will quote the evidence from St Helens Council to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee:

“When faced with a desperately strained social care system…trying to look after elderly people…and increasing numbers of children being taken into care, issues such as recycling rates cannot possibly be considered a priority.”

That statement should worry everyone here and I hope that the Minister will address that concern when she sums up today. Taxes are the price that we all pay for a civilised society. Austerity affects the poorest in society for the mistakes of the richest. Local authorities should not be forced into making those choices.

Standardising and simplifying the collection of material for recycling has been identified as being key to improving kerbside recycling rates. There is an opportunity to nudge us all into better habits. We are at a pivotal moment in time and we need to start ridding the planet of the filth we are creating. Two or three Members have referred to our collections systems. I have met professionals, partners and stakeholders, whether that is here in Parliament, at conferences or at the Environmental Audit Committee. All agree that a new waste collection system needs to be designed. We certainly would not want to start from here with the system we have.

The conclusions of the Committee’s report highlight inconsistency in collections. It is impossible for consumers to understand the on-pack recycling labelling scheme. We heard that the binfrastructure should be harmonised. A traffic light, colour-coded system was suggested, where the colour symbol on a bottle or paper cup could be matched to the appropriate colour-matching bin lid. That nudge would take the confusion and dilemma out of thinking, “Which bin do I put this product in?”

As manufacturers move to make packaging simpler and easier to recycle, colour coding could be added to all packaging to simply tell people which bin disposable items go in. For example, I have to look at the bottom of this plastic cup to see where it should go. Imagine a harmonised colour-coded bin system at airports, bus stations, train stations, football and rugby grounds and venues across the country. Will the Minister tell the Chamber whether that suggestion has been discussed at any level in Parliament?

The SNP Government in Scotland are leading by example. We take the environment very seriously in Scotland. We aim to make Scotland a zero-waste society with a circular economy, and we have ambitious targets in place to make that vision a reality. The Scottish Government are committed to minimising the population’s demand on primary resources and maximising the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources, rather than treating them as waste. There are ambitious targets in place for reducing waste and increasing recycling. For example, by 2025, we want to reduce total waste arising in Scotland by 15% against 2011 levels, to reduce food waste by 33% against 2013 levels and to recycle 70% of the remaining waste, sending no more than 5% of the remaining waste to landfill. Those are ambitious targets, but furthermore, we aim to match the EU ambition for all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030.

For information, the Scottish Government have banned personal hygiene products containing plastic microbeads and have launched a consultation on a ban on plastic-stemmed cotton buds. We are keen to follow best practice and improve standards. Scotland’s people expect that, and the recent EU plastics directive will be adopted imminently, leading to the banning of plastic straws, stirrers and other throwaway items.

The Scottish Government support the EU Commission’s vision that all plastic packaging should be easily recycled or reusable by 2030. We are a founder member of the plastics pact. Scotland is also the first part of the UK to commit to introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and we aim to have that up and running within the next two years. The purpose of that scheme is to increase the quantity of target materials captured for recycling and improve the quality of material captured. That will allow for high-value recycling, and, most importantly, build and encourage wider behavioural changes in the use of materials to deliver the maximum economic and social benefit to Scotland.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his speech to a conclusion within the next couple of minutes so that there is equal time for the Labour spokesperson and the Minister? I have divided the time from the start of his speech to the end of the debate approximately into three. I would be grateful if he began to bring his speech to a close.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

That is lucky, because my voice is beginning to give way anyway. There is real concern that Brexit poses a real threat to environmental standards in the UK, with DEFRA being singled out as the least-prepared Department for the UK’s departure from the EU. The best way for us to achieve our environmental ambitions is to ensure that Scotland’s devolved powers continue to be respected.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 2:34 pm, 24th October 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I was delighted to read this report, and I congratulate Neil Parish and his Select Committee on its production. It is wide-ranging, insightful, accessible, level-headed and challenging —all in just 41 pages of actual text. I actually enjoyed reading it; I apologise to any Members who might think I need to get out more. I fully support the emphasis that the report puts on using deposit return schemes to increase the quality and value of recycling, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for emphasising that today.

I hear what Jim Shannon is saying about the importance of working co-operatively with councils. That needs to come in before the strategy is created, as well as during the operation of any waste strategy. I agree with the Chair of the Select Committee about ensuring that a convenient and effective regime is in place for people to use before we start to impose any penalties on people for not using it. I agree with Douglas Chapman about the necessity for education and public information, to ensure that people know how the regime is meant to work.

John Stevenson said that he did not want us to impose things on people. Of course we need to work with industry and retailers, but we also need regulation to prevent bad practice from crowding out and undercutting good practice.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

My office and I ran a survey of small businesses in my constituency, and we discovered that many small business people are keen to support that work. They would be interested to read the report, although perhaps not quite as interested as my hon. Friend. Their issue, however, was that they wanted leadership from central Government. It is wonderful to see the level of agreement among the different parties represented in the Chamber today, but does he agree that what is needed is that leadership?

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

I absolutely agree. Far too much of the discourse about waste and the environment has been couched in terms that sound as though they are intended to make people feel guilty. We do not need to make people feel guilty; we need to put in place the regimes that enable them to do the right thing. I very much welcome the comments of my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy about the importance of Parliament’s setting a good example. That can extend to us as Members of Parliament—not only here in Parliament, but in our constituencies.

Derek Thomas spoke about the unspoilt countryside in Cornwall, which I have enjoyed, like almost everyone else in this country. The important issue of plastic litter is clearly one of the public drivers in the debate about waste, and that is one of the good reasons why deposit return schemes are effective. In Germany, more than 98% of applicable packaging is recycled through deposit return schemes. As Gillian Keegan pointed out, we could have people scouring the countryside, picking things up and ensuring they were not left lying around.

There was some discussion about local foods. The day before yesterday, I was rather distressed to see a response from DEFRA about Brexit, saying that we will need to rely more on local food and mentioning our ability to change over to root vegetables. I would support that, but they referred to cabbages and leeks as root vegetables; given that, I am not sure quite how much guidance we will get from DEFRA about what we should be eating. I absolutely agree about the need to get away from wholly unnecessary packaging and I am sure—well, I hope—that any strategy that the Government bring in will help to address that.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Chichester that people want to do the right thing. I had experience of that in Suffolk when we introduced a three-bin doorstep collection system, and there was an enormously high level of compliance. If we do the right thing, we will get people to comply with the regime.

The past year has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for waste, and I feel we are on one of the high-speed sections at the moment—I very much hope that the wheels do not come off. A year ago, I was asked to take on the role of shadow Minister for waste and recycling. Within weeks, the Government published their strategy document “Our Waste, Our Resources”. Arising from that have been several extensive consultations, and several petitions and debates have arisen as the general public have made us all aware of the seriousness with which they take the issue.

Running in parallel with all that, the EFRA Committee committed to an in-depth examination of many of the trickier issues, of which the report is the result. Now, of course, we have the new Environment Bill, part 3 of which, on waste and resources, covers many but not all of the issues raised in the report. I say “covers”, but not necessarily “resolves”. I am certain that the work that went into the report and the evidence collected by the Committee were very valuable in informing the new Bill, but there are clearly concerns in the report, which I share, that are not yet resolved in the Environment Bill.

The report is extremely timely as it can inform any amendments that Members might wish to make to the Environment Bill; I am sure that there will be some. I will mention a few of the main themes, and ask the Minister for her reaction. First, and most importantly, the report is not complimentary about the Government’s lack of focus on waste reduction as the first priority. The industry tells us that there has been a significant reduction in the weight of some packaging, but that does not necessarily translate into a reduction in the environmental impact; if a turtle suffocates on a plastic bag, it makes little difference whether that plastic bag weighs one gram or two grams. Substituting plastic for card may well reduce the weight of the packaging but not its carbon footprint.

Between 2000 and 2010, there was a revolution in the recycling of waste in this country, driven largely by the landfill tax. During that revolution, household recycling rose by 235%. The landfill tax was a weight-based system. It was straightforward to understand and simple to administer, but recycling has plateaued for the past 10 years and it is time to move on to new, more effective ways of dealing with the problem. The highest priority has to be reducing the amount of waste that we generate, not just its weight. I ask the Minister whether the Government recognise the need to move away from weight as the prime factor in waste targets, and whether carbon impact might not be a better measure.

Secondly, I concur with the findings of the report, which, while clearly recognising the carbon footprint of plastic packaging and the potential environmental impact of plastic waste that is not properly disposed of, points out the danger of demonising plastic and letting other materials off the hook. As the report says, we urgently need more information about the overall life-cycle impacts of various packaging solutions, and the figures quoted in various parts of the report—and the inconsistencies between some of them—clearly demonstrate that we cannot rely solely on data from the industries involved to inform policy decisions.

There needs to be a far more effective independent research and data regime for waste and resource use. More significant investment in the area is likely to save huge amounts in developing our waste policies in the future. I challenge the Minister to tell us whether the Government intend radically to increase the resources available to the Waste and Resources Action Programme as a matter of urgency, and what other research and development investments in waste management the Government are contemplating.

Thirdly, the report rightly highlights the laxity of the current reporting regime for producers, with the threshold for reporting on packaging set far too high. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes that the statutory duty to comply with whatever waste regimes are introduced through the new Environment Bill should apply to all—or almost all—producers, or whether, once more, a substantial number of businesses will simply escape the system.

Fourthly, the report examines in some depth the problems associated with compostable plastics. The desirable disposal methods for compostable plastics and for recyclable plastics are completely different, and it is essential that they should be kept separate. Yet there is very little recognition of that in the Environment Bill, so I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether she will be guided by the report in amending the relevant sections of the Environment Bill when the time comes.

Finally, an issue that is touched on in the report, and has been mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee, but is not, I believe, given sufficient emphasis, is the lack of recycling facilities in the United Kingdom, and the tragic impact on our oceans caused by the export of waste to countries that were clearly not equipped to deal with it in a sustainable way. That issue has, however, been extensively covered in a previous report this year from the Environmental Audit Committee, so I understand why the EFRA Committee would not want to repeat those findings.

There is plenty more that I could say about this excellent report, but most of it has been said by others already, so I will take my seat and listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Minister, may I ask you to leave, if possible, 90 seconds to two minutes for the Chair of the Select Committee to wind up?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:45 pm, 24th October 2019

Thank you, Mr Stringer; it is a pleasure to serve under you today. I will endeavour to leave a minute for my hon. Friend Neil Parish, whom I must thank for introducing the debate and for all the work of his Committee. I was previously a member of the esteemed EFRA Committee, and I know what excellent work it does and how important this inquiry was in informing what is, as we can tell from today’s debate, an engaging and really important subject. As constituency MPs, plastic packaging is a subject that so many people come to us about, so the information was—and is—really useful. The Government will publish their formal response shortly.

Clearly, plastic from packaging is a really serious issue. It makes a huge contribution to the overwhelming amount of plastic in the world around us. Some really excellent points have been raised today, as they were in the inquiry, but I wish to assure hon. Members that progress is being made—hopefully I will make that clear in what I will say—and leadership is being shown on the issue.

First and foremost, we have set out our ambitious 25-year environment plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within the lifetime of the plan. For the most problematic plastics, we are going faster. In the resources and waste strategy for England, which was published last December, we committed to working towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

We have already made good strides. We banned microbeads in cosmetic and care products. I thank John Mc Nally, who was very involved in that campaign, as was I on the Environmental Audit Committee. Of course, waste and recycling is a devolved matter in Scotland, but we worked together on that. We will also ban plastic stirrers, cotton buds and straws by 2020.

I will mention four areas of overhauling the waste system. We have had four major consultations on that. People say, “Why do you keep consulting?” but we have to have the data before we know what the right steps to take are. We have consulted on the consistency of recycling collections, which has been mentioned by so many Members. That consultation had a phenomenal response, and we intend to introduce consistent collections in 2023, subject to further consultation. That will be in the Environment Bill, with further consultation, and is a firm commitment.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

That is a laudable approach, but how will the Government guide local authorities to ensure that they change their contracts and collections actually are more uniform?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is a good point. Members touched on funding. We will give increased powers to local authorities, fully funded through the producer responsibility scheme, which I will go on to talk about. They should not fear; they are going to be a key part of this. As so many Members have referred to, achieving this alignment is critical to the future of the plastics world. That is all being listened to and consulted on, and there will be further consultation in the environmental improvement part of the Environment Bill.

The Government also carried out a consultation on producer responsibility, which will be a radical reform for producers of packaging. It will put the onus entirely back on them to be responsible for what happens to their product, how much recyclable material it contains, where it will go at the end of its life and all that.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

On a point of clarification, I understand that the EU is currently reviewing both the extended producer responsibility rules and the essential requirements in the packaging waste directive. How does that fit with the reviews that we are carrying out here if we are to leave the EU?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I urge the hon. Lady to look at the detail of the producer responsibility scheme and the consultation. We will develop our own bespoke system. This is all being done in conjunction with businesses, and there is a great deal of support for it.

A point was raised about the thresholds for reporting the amount of packaging waste. Some consultation has been done on that and feedback has been provided, and I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that information will be available in the near future. Similarly, we want consistent labelling on packaging so that consumers know what to recycle, in order to reduce the confusion that everyone keeps talking about regarding what is and is not recyclable. Another consultation is being carried out on that to gather yet more data.

We have also consulted on the deposit return scheme—one of those critical subjects that everyone seems to contact us about. The details of that scheme will come forward in the Environment Bill, with a view to introducing what we hope will be the best system in 2023. There will be a further, final consultation on that in the second part of the Bill to make sure we get it right. As I am sure Members are all aware, there is so much to this: what are we going to include? Will it be glass? Will it be plastic? What does the industry want, so that the scheme is usable by them when they gather all the material? It is not quite as straightforward as people think, but it is definitely coming forward.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I just wanted to address the point, which I think was made by the hon. Gentleman, about local authorities no longer being required to collect DRS material. Obviously, their new systems of collection will be funded through the producer responsibility scheme, so I hope that puts Members’ minds at rest.

Her Majesty’s Treasury has also consulted on a plastic packaging tax on the production and import of plastic packaging, to encourage the use of more recycled content. DEFRA’s proposals will work to increase the quality and quantity of the supply of recycled material; the plastic packaging tax will work in parallel, meaning that the amount of recycled material has to be incorporated into products. If producers do not reach the right level, which is purportedly going to be 30%, they will pay a tax.

I will now move on to the Environment Bill.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to get through all of my information, but go on, then. Make it quick, sir. [Laughter.]

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement & Nuclear Disarmament)

I will take as much time as I need, but I thank the Minister for her comments. My hon. Friend John Mc Nally mentioned the EU directive on single-use plastics, which is a policy that the Scottish Government support. Beyond 31 October, what does the Minister anticipate will be the view of the UK on keeping pace with environmental policy across the rest of Europe? Obviously, we will still be trading with other member states, and in this case the directive is a force for good. The Minister has talked about bringing in something as an alternative to the directive, so what would that look like?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We have committed to maintaining our environmental standards, and will always keep a weather eye on what is going on in Europe. We will be moving on in our own way, but it is crucial to maintain very high standards in all these areas and we have committed to do so in the waste strategy, the Environment Bill and the 25-year environment plan.

I hear Members say, “It is all very well having all these consultations, but how do you bring them into practice?” As I have mentioned, we will make these measures a reality through the Environment Bill. All the measures I have mentioned—deposit returns, producer responsibility and consistent gathering—will come forward in that Bill, which will be quite radical in getting rid of the “take, make, use, throw away” world that we live in and introducing a much more circular economy. To respond to the point made by the shadow Minister, Sandy Martin, many of those measures will, of course, result in less waste being produced in the first place.

Much has been said about consumer confusion, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the shadow Minister mentioned biodegradable plastics in particular, which I hope will be addressed as part of dealing with the labelling issue. It is an area in which data is so important—what is biodegradable? What do things break down into? What do they produce in the soil, and what runs off into the water? All those questions need to be carefully researched. As a consequence, the Government published a call for evidence in July 2019 to help consider the development of the standards and the certification that might be given to biodegradable and compostable plastics. That call for evidence has only just closed, on 14 October, and its findings will be published in due course.

I was very interested in the point about nappies made by my hon. Friend Derek Thomas—I used washable nappies for my first child, and it nearly killed me because it was such hard work. We will need to address the issue of proper biodegradable nappies in the future. I also wanted to mention the 5p charge, which demonstrated how bringing in such a measure can cause a paradigm shift, making the whole of society change how it acts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned his water fountains, and I commend him on those; they are a great idea for his local area. He may want to contact Water UK, which advises on introducing water fountains in public and the refillable bottle scheme in cafes and shops. The shadow Minister and I share our bottles in common, and I was one of the people who worked on the plastic-free Parliament initiative—lots of Members did that, across all parties—and on giving up plastics for Lent, which was very hard. Those are great initiatives, and they are moving forward.

I also commend the UK Plastics Pact, the first initiative of its kind in any European country, which is run by the Waste & Resources Action Programme and supported by 80 Members. It contains key issues and objectives for 2025, including the elimination of problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through design and innovation; for 100% of plastics packaging to be reusable, recyclable and re-compostable; for 70% of plastics packaging to be recycled and composted; and for there to be an average of 30% recycled content across all plastics packaging. Its endeavours are excellent. I know that Scotland was an early member of that group, and it has got a lot of support from businesses including Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco. Many of those companies are trialling loose and unpacked vegetables. I still use my Somerset wicker basket, which I try to mention in any debate I can possibly get it into, rather than plastic bags. I have run a one-woman campaign on this all my life; we should all have a wicker basket, which also help to take in carbon through growing the willow for the baskets.

A lot of funding and effort is going into research and development and into innovation, which are absolutely key to reducing our plastic use, as has rightly been said by the shadow Minister and many other Members. Already, £20 million has gone into a plastics research and innovation fund, £20 million into a plastics and waste innovation fund, and £60 million into the smart sustainable plastic packaging challenge. A lot is going on in this space, and I commend and welcome it.

This is a complex area, but I assure Members that I feel we are making progress. If Members join in with the Environment Bill, we will get some measures through that will change our lives.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 2:59 pm, 24th October 2019

I thank all Members for participating; there has been much cross-party support today. We all want to reduce the amount of plastics we use, to recycle more and to make sure that the Government take action.

I welcome the Minister’s enthusiasm in her new role, and I also thank the shadow Minister, Sandy Martin, for actually reading the report—perhaps we should recommend it to all Members of Parliament. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) for speaking, and the two members of the Select Committee who are present for their support.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).