Plastic Waste

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 8th September 2021.

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Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 4:30 pm, 8th September 2021

Before we begin, can I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking? That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to hansardnotes@parliament.uk. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers. I call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered reducing plastic waste.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and a pleasure to be back in a fairly busy Westminster Hall. Thank you to all colleagues for expressing an interest in today’s debate. I would also like to thank the many organisations and charities that have, I am sure, been in touch with all right hon. and hon. Members to prepare briefings, particularly the Conservative Environment Network.

Reducing plastic waste is a mammoth topic to tackle. I fear our short time today will allow us only to scratch the surface. I would like to begin by outlining why this is such an important issue to discuss. It is a topic often raised with me by residents of Carshalton and Wallington. I am sure colleagues here today will share similar experiences from their constituencies. I had the pleasure of visiting Culvers House primary school in Hackbridge recently after pupils had written to me about plastic pollution and why they were so passionate about it. They thought more could and should be done. I am very grateful for their insight.

We all know the harm that the scourge of plastic pollution causes our environment, but it is worth going over some of the numbers, because they make stark reading. Plastic waste in the UK continues to grow, with more than half of all plastics ever manufactured being made in the past 15 years. An estimated 5 million tonnes are used every year, nearly half of that being packaging alone. Plastic waste harms our natural environment if it is not recycled, lasting centuries in landfill or, if discarded as litter, polluting our oceans, rivers and soils, and the creatures that rely on them.

Plastic production and waste contribute to climate change. Current projections show that, if the strong growth of plastic usage continues as expected, emissions of greenhouse gases by the global plastic sector will account for 15% of the entire global annual carbon budget by 2050. Again, that barely scratches the surface of the scale of the issue, but it gives an indication of the challenge we face and the action that must be taken.

I want to say a big thank you to the Chamber engagement team at the House of Commons for their amazing work in engaging with the public ahead of today’s debate to find out people’s priorities. I thank the more than 500 people who took part in that survey. I will go over some of the headline figures that came out of that piece of work.

People were asked what measures should be taken to ensure that plastic waste is recycled, rather than sent to landfill or incinerators. Respondents came back with many suggestions, such as better education on how to recycle and the need to do so; more consistency in approaches across local authorities, with many citing confusion when moving from one area to another; preventing recyclable materials from being sent abroad; and introducing deposit return schemes. I will go into that later.

After the three or four debates about incinerators that I have held in this place, the Minister will know about my passion to ensure that they are properly regulated. When one opened in my constituency, on a visit there I witnessed recyclable waste being put into the incinerator. I know the Minister is well aware of my interest.

The second question asked what steps should be taken to reduce the amount of plastic waste being produced in the first place. Suggestions included banning single-use plastics, especially for food products; using incentives, legislation or both to assist transition away from plastic packaging; and holding businesses accountable for the plastic that they produce. What stood out for me in that question was the word “reduce”. We often speak about recycling and reusing, both of which are, of course, much better than landfill and incineration. Nevertheless, we must remember that at the peak of the waste hierarchy, the best thing that we can do is reduce the amount of waste that we produce in the first place, so that must be our aim.

Finally, people were asked about how we can use technology to reduce the amount of plastic that is produced and to deal with the plastic that is within the circular economy at the moment. Suggestions included using technology to find alternatives to plastics, particularly when it comes to packaging; investing in technologies such as biodegradable or compostable plastic; new technologies to look at labelling, in order to track the life cycle of plastics and use that as an education technique; and using plastics in more innovative ways for house building, roads, pavements or construction—images from around the world that I am sure many colleagues have seen before. Indeed, it has been a pleasure for me to meet many businesses, charities and organisations that are looking at developing new technologies or that have such technologies, which they are trying to use as a way to deal with this issue. Although there is no silver bullet, and I am sure that everyone would agree that there is no one solution or one thing that we can offer, the new technologies out there certainly give us a chance to make a considerable impact.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education)

Like me, the hon. Member was, and presumably still is, a councillor. Between 2010, when I was a councillor in Camden, and the start of the pandemic, there were £16 billion-worth of cuts to local government, and the Environment Agency saw its Government funding slashed by nearly two thirds. The direct result of that underfunding is that councils have struggled to deal with plastic waste effectively, and there has not been enough monitoring and enforcement of the rules. As a fellow Member of Parliament and a current councillor, does the hon. Member agree that reducing plastic waste relies on local councils and bodies such as the Environment Agency having the resources that they need to do so?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that question, and she raises a very important point. The only thing I would observe is that some councils are doing incredibly good work and increasing their recycling rates, and they all face similar pressures. I am sure she will go more into her argument in her speech, and I thank her for her contribution.

I thank the people who shared their views and information and engaged with the Commons Chamber engagement team in advance of the debate, because what has come out loud and clear is the call for action on tackling plastic waste. Indeed, action is being taken. There are things that I want to acknowledge, and some measures that I want to praise before I go any further, such as the restriction on supplies of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and the ban on microbeads. I welcome the consultation that is coming this autumn on banning more single-use plastic items, and the Government’s commitment to prevent all avoidable plastic by the end of 2042. I welcome the requirement for large retailers to charge 10p for a single-use plastic carrier bag. The 95% reduction in the use of plastic bag sales since 2015 is very welcome indeed.

I welcome the measures in the Environment Bill, such as putting charges on single-use plastic items, ensuring that producers take greater responsibility for their waste, establishing consistent approaches to recycling across England, tackling waste crime, enforcing litter offences, and delivering on the manifesto pledge to ban the export of polluting plastic to non-OECD countries, among many others. I welcome the plastic packaging tax, which will come into force from April 2022, and the fact that we are leading the Commonwealth in fighting against marine plastic pollution through the Blue Planet Fund. Those are very welcome measures, but there is always more that can and should be done to tackle this huge issue. Something that I would pick out immediately is the push for an all-in deposit return scheme, which would capture up to three times more plastic than an on-the-go system does.

Photo of James Davies James Davies Conservative, Vale of Clwyd

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He refers to the deposit return scheme, which we hope will be introduced in the next couple of years. Does he have any thoughts about the possibility of a novel solution using digital technology—for instance, to capture the plastic crisp wrappers that litter our streets and countryside?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is an incredibly important thing, which the Government should definitely look at, and I urge the Minister to take that away. The deposit return scheme described applies only to plastic bottles, and we know that there are opportunities and examples from around the world of where that can be expanded to include much more, so that is definitely something that should be looked at.

Although it is important that the Government take action and that businesses take on more responsibility, old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and our biggest challenge is potentially changing our own individual behaviour.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate on this important issue. He has outlined many measures, and I remember a measure that was introduced by the coalition Government: the plastic bag tax. He was talking a moment ago about personal responsibility. Will he urge the Minister to increase the plastic bag levy to encourage people to take greater responsibility in their shopping habits?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

The 95% cut figure is proof of the success of the plastic bag tax. It has obviously worked, so I urge the Minister to do as my hon. Friend suggests.

I have a strange sense of déjà vu here. Tulip Siddiq mentioned my time as a councillor. Indeed, this was the first topic I ever spoke about as a councillor, when we were discussing it during a full council motion almost three years ago. The point I made then still stands: without buy-in from people at large, with all of us playing our part, lasting change will be difficult. Those survey responses from members of the public point to some really important things that need to be done, particularly on education and ensuring that transitions and changes are as simple possible for people to make. Later this year, I hope to do my part in that by hosting a local event to coincide with COP26, during which I hope to have a session on the changes we can make right here, right now to reduce the amount of plastic waste that we contribute.

The central message I will leave behind is the need to look at the circular economy and always keep one eye fixed sharply on the top of that waste hierarchy. If that is done right, we can bring businesses and individuals along with us—not as some kind of burden or punitive measure, but as a positive contribution to our environment, to the world that we live in, and to the creatures with which we share it.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

I will move to wind-ups at 5.8 pm, so you will probably have about four minutes each, but I might have to reduce that. I call Geraint Davies.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 4:42 pm, 8th September 2021

Thank you, Ms Rees. It is good to switch places—I was in the Chair this morning. I thank Elliot Colburn for bringing the debate on this enormously important matter to the Chamber.

People may know that the United Nations predicted that by 2050, there would be more plastic in the sea than fish. The problem we face is that plastic is simply too cheap, which is why it is thrown away. The reason for that is essentially that 6.5% of global GDP is used to subsidise fossil fuels, creating cheap plastic. China is now putting more subsidy into fossil fuels than the United States, the EU and Russia combined, which means plastic is too cheap. It is incumbent on us to take leadership to reduce subsidies and to tax plastic so that the price goes up. We know from simple taxes such as the carrier bag tax that that has an effective impact on behaviour. It is all very well preaching that people should use less plastic, but people need fiscal drivers to make the change.

Meanwhile, the landfill tax is significant, and although I would not argue against that, local authorities have been driven towards building more and more incinerators. I will be involved in a meeting next week—possibly with the Minister—about the Edmonton incinerator, which generates 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year at a time when 85% of the plastic that Camden throws away is recyclable. We need a carbon tax, and although one is coming for plastic made of less than 30% recyclate, we should do better than that. Indeed, the tax itself will be £200 per tonne, compared with the EU tax of £685 per tonne.

We need to drive up those costs to switch producers and consumers. Frankly, if I went to Costa Coffee and could get a cheaper coffee in a china cup than in a takeaway cup, I would stay indoors to drink it. We need to think carefully about that and take tough action. It is all very well having a 25-year environment plan, but that is simply too long to wait. The Government’s target is for zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042, and for zero avoidable waste generally by 2050. Yet on current projections we know that by 2025 we will have breached the Paris 1.5° threshold ambition to address climate change. Plastic waste is generating incineration waste, which is causing massive problems in terms of emissions, and that is in addition to the waste in our oceans. Alongside that there is a lot of evidence that these fumes do not just change the climate but affect people’s health, because ultrafine particulates breach the filters.

In a nutshell, I am calling on the Government to up their game in terms of taxation, timing, enforceable targets and the deposit return scheme, and to let businesses and consumers know that the cost of plastic will go up in the future and that the best advice, in terms of their pocket and of climate sustainability and the local environment, is to look at other forms of packaging and so on. For instance, the cost of clothing would not be pushed down by the fact that we are all wearing plastic clothing and breathing in particulates and so on.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 4:46 pm, 8th September 2021

The covid emergency has demonstrated how vital plastic is, forming the primary component in billions of items of personal protective equipment and other medical equipment used to fight the virus and save lives. It is versatile, low cost and durable. However, it is that strength—that durability—that has led to increasing public concern about plastic littering our neighbourhoods and polluting our seas. Plastic will always be a part of our economy and our daily lives, but we urgently need to reduce our reliance on it and also make sure that more of the plastic that we do use is reused or recycled.

This Conservative Government are doing more than any of their predecessors to address the issue. We were one of the first countries in the world to introduce an extensive ban on microbeads in personal care products. Our charging scheme, as we have heard, has led to a dramatic reduction in plastic bag use, and the Environment Bill contains groundbreaking proposals for further action.

That includes extended producer responsibility, to make the companies benefiting from plastic packaging pay the full cost of disposal. That will give them an incentive to consider the impacts that their products have after they have been used by consumers. I hope that the Minister will also put pressure on the takeaway sector to play its part in reducing plastic waste and tackling litter. Local authorities are at the sharp end of dealing with litter and household waste, so I would argue that the bulk of the proceeds of extended producer responsibility should be used to help councils keep our streets cleaner and to ensure that more of our household waste is recycled.

A second key proposal in the Bill is the deposit return scheme for drink containers. In its 25-year plan for the environment, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs points out:

“Millions of single-use bottles jostle their way around the oceans, carried on the currents even to the remotest and most fragile Pacific atolls.”

I appeal to the Minister, as I have done on previous occasions, to make progress as quickly as possible on both EPR and the DRS, given the urgency of the situation and the impact of these drink containers.

Lastly, I turn briefly to the subject of oxo-biodegradable plastic. I have been briefed by Symphony Environmental, which is an export success story and employs a number of my constituents. It considers that policy makers both here and in the EU are not basing their approach to oxo-biodegradable plastic on the scientific evidence. It strongly denies, for instance, that its d2w product emits microplastic when it breaks down. I ask the Minister to engage with Symphony Environmental and consider the research it cites—for example, from the Laboratory of Microbial Oceanography in France—before taking a decision on whether to introduce the ban envisaged in article 5 of the EU single-use plastic directive.

We need to reassess our attitude to plastic fundamentally if we are to deal with the appalling damage it can do to our oceans, and the eyesore it can create in our streets and parks if it is thrown away irresponsibly. We need to break away from the linear “take-make-consume-dispose” model, which assumes that resources are abundant, available and easy to dispose of. Our commitments on climate and nature simply cannot be met unless we move to a more circular economy by reusing, repairing and recycling much more than we do now. We set ambitious goals in our 25-year environment plan, and the Environment Bill will turn them into binding targets. The question for the Minister is: are we on track to deliver the change we need to meet those targets?

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green 4:50 pm, 8th September 2021

I am grateful to Elliot Colburn for securing the debate. I have received many letters and emails from constituents of different ages—both young and old—who want to see urgent action taken to reduce waste, which is a serious threat not only to animal and marine life but to us and our environment. The children of Chilcote Primary School in my constituency wrote to me during the lockdown, and the message is absolutely clear: take action now and save the planet. I am in the process of going round to schools and doing that.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said that the first issue he spoke on in the council was the environment. When I first became a councillor in 1999 in Birmingham, there was a councillor who used to speak on environmental issues, and people used to laugh at him. Twenty-two years on, we are still talking about recycling and the action that is needed. If we are to take this seriously, we must bring forward the actions that are needed to save the planet and the children of Chilcote Primary School, and all other schools in my constituency and across the country, because it is about their future. We will then hand over to them the baton and they will look after the planet in the way that they want for future generations. We do not want those children to be in this position 20 years on, still talking about it and debating the action that needs to be taken.

Microplastic pollution is a risk to animals and humans alike, and it is now abundantly clear that radical action needs to be taken. The Government maintain that the UK is a world leader in tackling plastic pollution, yet progress remains painfully slow. The UK is still one of the largest producers of plastic waste in the world. Much of it is exported abroad, but that does not diminish our responsibility. It would be a nimby approach—not in my back yard—to say, “Let’s offload it to someone else.”

Not so long ago, I saw a documentary about the slums in India—the name of the biggest slum escapes my mind. It was amazing to see not only how they recycled every element of an object that could be recycled, from plastics, Coke bottles and whatever else, and turned them into goods that could be resold, but the way that community came together. If that can happen in a slum in a third-world country, as a developed nation we need not only to learn lessons but to set the standards to make progress on this important issue. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud 4:54 pm, 8th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for instigating today’s debate.

I may be found regularly in Stroud balancing food on my baby’s head, having already stuffed my pockets and her sling full of my purchases as I join millions of people who refuse to pay 10p for a carrier bag. Such shopping/baby juggling was unthinkable even five years ago, but the Government’s determination to bring about meaningful change has led, as we have already heard, to a 95% cut in plastic bag sales in major supermarkets since 2015. When I start worrying about the scale of the issue of plastic pollution, I think about the change of behaviour on carrier bags, because it gives me hope. By golly, do we need hope on plastic pollution.

The UK is a world leader, but it is estimated that 5 million tonnes of plastic is still used here every year, and nearly half of that is packaging—8 billion drinks containers include plastic, and they end up landfilled, incinerated or lost in our precious environments. Plastic waste lasts centuries in landfill, pollutes soils, rivers, wetlands and oceans, harms the creatures that inhabit them and weakens our environmental infrastructure that is essential not only for ecosystems but for our future.

Closer to home in Stroud, littering and fly-tipping is a constant feature of correspondence, casework and the local council’s work. As my hon. Friend mentioned, children are really exercised by the issue and I regularly receive letters from schools. Our farmers have reported livestock being harmed by ingesting plastic rubbish, and local people want to see massive corporations such as McDonald’s and Tesco taking responsibility for the litter that flows from their stores. Covid has not helped—masks like the ones we are wearing around the room are often found on the streets. The Government have hugely increased the fines that can be imposed for littering, but we need to see regular prosecutions to create a serious deterrent.

I am proud that Stroud is the greenest constituency in the greenest county of Gloucestershire: we are already punching above our weight. One of our volunteer groups, Stroud District Action on Plastic, works with individuals, businesses, schools, clubs and other community organisations to reduce their plastic footprint. The group was accredited by Surfers Against Sewage in 2020. We have zero-waste environmental shops, such as Greenshop in Bisley, Waste Not, Want Not in Berkeley, Loose in Stroud, Stroudco food hub, the Stroud Valleys Project shop and the Shiny Goodness health store and Beeswax Wraps in Nailsworth—I could go on, but I would probably be told to be quiet.

What are our asks? There is no question in my mind that the Conservative Government are working incredibly hard in this area. The Environment Bill gives a range of new powers, and our creation of the Blue Planet Fund will help developing nations to tackle marine plastic pollution, so action is not just here with restricting plastic straws. We have heard the list of things that we have done.

One of my constituents works for an organisation called City to Sea, which is calling for the ban on plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups to be considered even more swiftly than we are doing with our autumn consultation, and brought in as a matter of urgency. I support that, and I will press for it. The Government’s proposed deposit return scheme is excellent, but it can and should go further with the all-in system that we have heard about. It would capture 23 billion drinks containers a year, while the limited system would capture only about 7.4 billion. I recognise my hon. Friend’s suggestion that technology could be used better too. I hope Stroud’s successes will spur many others on.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:59 pm, 8th September 2021

I am delighted to participate in this debate on reducing plastic waste. A recent report from Greenpeace, called “Trashed”, highlighted the shocking truth that the UK generates more plastic per person than any other country in the world except the USA, with supermarkets and major consumer brands being the largest sources of plastic packaging. We must improve that shameful situation.

Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, and every year some 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escape into the oceans from coastal nations, equivalent to setting five full binbags of rubbish on every beach around the world. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, including birds, fish and other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including those that are endangered, are known to be affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics. However, most animal deaths are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, and in our food chain.

The Scottish Government were the first to introduce the charge for plastic bags, and have banned personal hygiene products containing plastic microbeads and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. The work being done to ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws, and food and drink containers is very important, tackling some of the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics. However, clearly more must be done at UK and international level to tackle the issue. Scotland aims to match the EU ambition for all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030, signing the New Plastics Economy global commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, showing a real commitment to a circular economy for plastics.

COP26 is a pivotal moment when this serious issue can and should be tackled across the international community. It offers an opportunity to make real progress in dealing with the damage plastic causes to our world, our climate, our natural habitats and our population systems. That opportunity must not be squandered. The Break Free From Plastic movement found that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé were the three largest plastic polluters in the world in 2020. These corporations must be held accountable for the shocking plastic waste that infects our communities and takes centuries to decompose. We must not let them off the hook. We need concerted international action to effect real and positive change; we need to consider what carrots and sticks can be used to persuade producers to reduce plastic waste. COP26 presents that opportunity to take action and ensure real accountability, and we must use it to seek to influence producer behaviour in a comprehensive and holistic way, so that we can say we are doing all we can to address the scourge of plastic waste on our world. I urge the Minister not to let that opportunity pass by, and look forward to hearing what plans she has to make sure that is firmly on the agenda.

Failure will not be forgiven by future generations. Consumers want action, and now is the time for the international community to listen to consumers and finally take real action to address the issue globally.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner 5:02 pm, 8th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. There are two important reasons why this debate matters so much. First, plastic pollution is killing more than 1 million birds per year—that is a shocking figure. I have just come from a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reception. In addition, more than 100,000 sea mammals and turtles—those majestic creatures of the sea—are dying every year from eating, or getting tangled in, plastic waste. We are making the biodiversity crisis worse. Secondly, plastics are currently contributing 1% of global carbon emissions, but projections show them rising to 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050 if we do not take action. That is absolutely the wrong direction.

The UK has not been idle on this issue: we have banned microbeads, restricted the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups. The 95% reduction in supermarket plastic bag sales since 2015 shows what can be done. There are good measures in the Environment Bill, we have a world-leading plastic packaging tax coming in from April next year—£200 per tonne on plastic packaging that does not have a minimum threshold of 30% recycled content—and we are leading, with other Commonwealth countries, on the Blue Planet Fund, so we are working internationally as well. However, there is more to do, and my hon. Friend the Minister will be the first to champion us to go further and faster—I know how much she cares about this issue.

The House of Commons Library briefing paper states that in 2017 the UK was recycling 41.5% of our plastic waste. However, we were behind Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. In particular, we are behind Lithuania, which appears to be recycling about two thirds—66%—of its plastic. Perhaps the Minister will go to Lithuania to see whether we can learn anything from them.

I, too, am excited about the deposit return scheme, which one or two colleagues have mentioned. That is really needed. Like every colleague on the Government Benches who has spoken, I urge the Government to go for the all-encompassing all-in option, which would capture 23 billion plastic containers every year, rather than the more limited on-the-go option, which would capture only 7.4 billion containers. That is the first extra thing that we could do.

Secondly, we must make recycling instructions clearer. I am sure that my wife and I are not the only couple in the country who stare endlessly at items of plastic trying to work out whether we can recycle them—it is very small writing and not clear. Perhaps the Minister will make us have really clear, large and easy-to-see instructions on products, so that we all know which bin that stuff should go in.

I am also pleased to hear that we will make progress with local authorities all having to recycle more items. With plastic, I understand that from next year every local authority in England will have to recycle plastic bottles, including clear drinks containers, HDPE—high-density polyethylene—milk containers, detergent, shampoo and cleaning product containers, and plastic pots, tubs and trays. That is good. Will we go further? Will we include more? We should not lack ambition.

In addition, there is what we can do personally—we will all of us, absolutely, want to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on this, but we can all recycle more ourselves. We can use more items for life. It is excellent that many shops, large and small, get that. I visited a new small business, the Good Life Refill shop on Leighton Buzzard High Street, where people can refill, as in the name. Tesco is also doing great things—Leighton Buzzard has one of the stores where we can recycle considerably more plastic than in other stores. Those are some good local examples but, please, we need to keep going on this. Our constituents really care about it, younger people in particular.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Manufacturing) 5:07 pm, 8th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank Elliot Colburn for securing a debate that we are all invested in—so are our constituents, clearly.

The UK Government simply must do more to combat the plastic crisis. They must seek to match the Scottish Government’s significantly more ambitious targets and achievements. Protecting Scotland’s natural environment is a key priority for the Scottish Government and always has been, which is why we are bringing forward a circular economy Bill to encourage the reuse of products, to reduce waste and to increase recycling. That comes on top of all our other actions since 2007.

We are good at recycling in Scotland, but we want to get even better. The recycling rate in my Angus constituency is 59.1%. That is not quite the 66% of Lithuania, but if the Minister wants to come somewhere slightly more expedient than Lithuania, she is more than welcome to see what we do in Angus.

Consumers need confidence that the trouble they go to in order to recycle does not result in their commodified recycling turning up in mixed-plastic bales to be shipped somewhere far away and end up smouldering on a roadside somewhere, as we saw in Turkey. That does not instil confidence in consumers to do the right thing. This crisis must receive renewed attention from the UK Government, not least because the UK is estimated to produce 5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, nearly half of which is packaging.

According to National Geographic, half of all the plastics ever manufactured was produced in the past 15 years, as others have said. That is clearly and profoundly unsustainable. Without oversharing, I must mention my fondness for Mr Kipling’s lemon slices. I am too fond of them, and it is unfortunate that they come in a plastic tray, inside a plastic sleeve, inside a cardboard box, held together with—I hope—a water-based glue, although it might be a plastic-based glue. That is not okay, and it is done in pursuit of a competitive edge.

The growing use of plastic is a feature of competition, largely in food production, a shift to ready-made produce, and the growth of the food service sector. Legislation has not been anywhere near keeping pace with changes in the market. As Geraint Davies mentioned, plastic packaging is not cheap. It may be relatively cheap in monetary terms to produce, but it is not cheap in environmental and generational terms.

There is a technological and a cultural dimension to this crisis. Culturally, we need to move to greater awareness of our purchasing decisions, to drive producers to change their practices, but we need the legislation to back that up. There will always be plastic waste, and we need to halt those bales of mixed plastic being shipped out and dealt with somewhere else; we need to deal with our mess here. In our regime, it is “Out of sight, out of mind.” That is the UK’s position and it is incorrigible.

We need a technical vision, too. We need to see beyond the current challenges and find a route out of them. This might seem a little abstract, but I want to touch on the production of Concorde, the supersonic passenger aircraft. It is no exaggeration to say that the engineers and technicians who designed that aircraft had no idea how they were going to do it when they embarked on it. We need to recover some of that ambition and eagerness to confront the challenges in front of us.

The Scottish Government led the way in October 2014 with the plastic bag charge, with England following after. Scotland is again leading the way. We have already banned personal hygiene products containing plastic microbeads, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. In this parliamentary Session, the SNP will take action to ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws, balloon sticks and so on. Those are some of the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics, and we will ban their manufacture and supply in Scotland. My hon. Friend Patricia Gibson went through the entire list, and I have touched on some of the imminent improvements in Scotland. They will be supplemented by an ambitious deposit return scheme.

I urge the Minister to listen to Members from her own party, if not to me, and to have the most ambitious deposit return scheme. The one that we are to introduce in Scotland next year will incentivise the recycling of not only single-use plastic drinks containers, but cans and glass bottles. Scotland is leading the way, and I very much hope that the UK Government will follow in this context and many others. It is incumbent on Ministers and the Government to ensure that this is delivered on.

May I, in a conclusion that is hopefully not too confusing, speak up for plastics, as some right hon. and hon. Members have done? I do not fancy a life without plastic. I do not want to get on an aeroplane without plastic; I do not want to get ill in a world without plastic; and I really do not want to clean up after my 12-year-old Golden Retriever in a world without plastic. Plastic is not the villain here. We must minimise its use in a way that is consistent with our climate objectives, but focus on the post-consumer regime. The operative word in the plastic waste crisis is “waste”, and I urge the Government not to waste any more time.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:12 pm, 8th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank Elliot Colburn for calling this debate and providing the House with the opportunity to address our collective responsibility to preserve our planet and protect our environment.

The scourge of plastic waste is evident in communities across the country, thanks to a lost decade of Tory austerity. It is piling up on high streets, on street corners and in our green open spaces. It is also exported, as we have heard, to some of the world’s poorest countries, where what is supposed to be recyclable material ends up in landfill, polluting our oceans, or even being shipped back to Britain for us to deal with. This is a very real problem, and it requires speedy, comprehensive and properly funded solutions.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will know, as will the Minister, that many of the agencies that should be tackling waste and pollution are underfunded and understaffed. The Environment Agency has struggled to tackle waste crime and monitor waste exports because of the cuts to its budget and staff numbers. Colleagues across the Chamber have mentioned the issues with local authorities, which are struggling to deal with waste effectively.

The Government’s plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is years behind schedule and appears to contain only weak proposals. Britain’s plastic waste crisis is being kicked into the long grass. That plan reflects what we all know to be true: the Government lack ambition and drive, and are failing in their responsibility to preserve our planet and protect our environment. Talking of the environment, I am very pleased to see the progress that the Environment Bill is making in the other place. It is important legislation that, at every stage, Labour has attempted to strengthen, improve and empower. Regrettably, the Conservative party and Government voted against and defeated every single amendment of ours, including our plans for tackling plastic waste.

The Environment Bill’s provision for a deposit return scheme is limited to certain materials, rather than creating a framework that could be broadened to include more types of plastic or bioplastics. The Bill’s waste and resource efficiency measures are too focused on the end-of-life solutions to waste and recycling; much more emphasis is needed, in a real cyclical economy, on the production side, and on encouraging the reduction of waste in the first place.

The country is crying out for real leadership from the Government. We require proper action now. That action will take many different forms. One important one is building a narrative out in the community. UK supermarkets produce approximately 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year, so how are we empowering customers to do away with plastic waste? We heard from Siobhan Baillie about the use of slings and juggling with babies, but we also need to work on other issues, to get everybody to do the same thing.

Although this is a devolved issue, it is important for all parts of the UK because plastic waste in our waterways and our seas does not stop at national borders. Could the Minister outline what recent discussions she has had with the devolved Administrations on a four-nation response to tackling the plastic waste crisis across the countries?

May I suggest that the Minister arranges a meeting with the Welsh Environment Minister at the earliest opportunity? The Welsh Labour Government have led the way on delivering bold policies to tackle single-use plastics. Wales is now recognised as the second most successful recycling country in the world. The Minister does not need to go to Lithuania or even Scotland—she could come to Wales first. There is much for this Government to learn from the Labour Government in Wales, and there is no time like the present to start doing so.

Back in 2019, the resources and waste strategy set out a plan for resource efficiency and a circular economy, which included the ambition for all plastics to be biodegradable. It is clear that environmental damage caused by single-use bags would be somewhat mitigated if there was a requirement for them to be biodegradable. Will the Minister provide us with a progress check on what the Government are doing to stop plastics, including plastic bags, that are not biodegradable, from entering circulation?

Ahead of the debate, I received a very helpful briefing from Wildlife and Countryside Link—I pay tribute to it for all the work it does to shine a light on the issues. The briefing acknowledged recent Government announcements, but they do not go far enough and do not tackle the problem.

I have questions on a couple of policy areas. The primary aim of the deposit return scheme is to increase the recycling rates for drinks containers, and to reduce littering. That is great, but the Government are considering whether to restrict the scope of the scheme to covers only drinks containers under 750 ml in size. That is an issue. We have heard the stats on how the scheme could be improved if there was an on-the-go option. Extended producer responsibility is another area. The Government are right to recognise that it needs a major overhaul. Will the Minister commit today to delivering EPR for packaging by 2023? I have asked a number of questions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to each and every one.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

I call Minister Rebecca Pow. Would you please leave a couple of minutes at the end, so that Elliot Colburn can wind up?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:18 pm, 8th September 2021

Thank you, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair. I am really pleased to be in this very important debate in Westminster Hall. As colleagues know, I take the whole issue of plastics very seriously indeed. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for bringing the issue to us. Clearly, there is an awful lot of synergy in the room on the issue, as there is from the public. I get a lot of letters from schools, as we all do. It is good that there is so much interest in this agenda, which we take very seriously in Government.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the issue is not just about what we do with waste at the end; it is about not producing it in the first place, and I will touch on that. That is why we have a lot of targets. We have already set targets to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill to 10% by 2035, and an overall target of zero avoidable plastic waste of any kind by 2042—a point touched on by Geraint Davies. That does not mean that we will wait until then; we have a raft of measures in place to tackle the issue long before that. The Government are moving on the issue, which I am sure hon. Friends and hon. Members will understand, because we are moving towards a recyclable, reusable, compostable era, with all plastic[This section has been corrected on 13 September 2021, column 6MC — read correction] waste hopefully being of that nature by 2025. We are committed to transitioning to a circular economy.

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

I will not give way, because I think I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I want to get through the many points that have been made.

We have already introduced one of the toughest bans on microbeads and microplastics anywhere.[This section has been corrected on 13 September 2021, column 6MC — read correction] We have had the 5p carrier bag charge—now the 10p charge. As has been highlighted, that has cut down dramatically on the number of single-use plastic bags being used by supermarkets. We have extended it to small producers. I love the image of juggling the baby and not taking a bag. I have done the same, but I always take my Somerset Willow wicker basket with me. Everyone should have one—support local traditions.

We have also restricted the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and we will go much further than that shortly, because we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates and cutlery, and polystyrene drinks containers. In that consultation, we will ask whether there are similar things that we should be working towards. I know that there is an awful lot of pressure relating to the EU single-use plastic directive, but we will be addressing all that and more. Indeed, we are tackling a whole lot of other issues that have not even been tackled yet by that directive. For example, we are looking at textiles, because a lot of textiles produce microfibres. There is an awful lot that we are working on.

Innovation and research have been touched on. We have established a £100 million package for research and innovation to deal with the issue of plastic waste. That includes £38 million through the plastics research and innovation fund and £10 million through the resource action fund to innovate in recycling and in tackling litter, which was touched on by my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers. Talking of science, she touched on oxo-biodegradables, an issue that has been raised with me and that I have had meetings about. As a result of a call for evidence on this, and the review by the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee on oxo-biodegradable plastics, we are minded to consult on a ban on those materials. That is the latest update that I can give her on that.

Plastic pollution is not just a problem for our country. That is why we have worked to support the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance and the tide turners plastic challenge badge, helping hundreds of thousands of young people tackle plastics in their communities. Through the £500 million Blue Planet Fund, we are investing in, among other things, the Global Plastic Action Partnership.

We are ready to go further, and that is why we are calling for a new global agreement to co-ordinate action on marine plastic litter and microplastics. Just as we had in Paris for climate change, we believe we need an international agreement on these types of plastic pollution. The majority of UN members are already on board, so when we come together at the UN Environmental Assembly next February, I hope that other nations will join in with this.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Is the Minister sympathetic to the EU’s idea of a carbon border tax, whereby we tax imports of plastic? The implication is that the cost of plastic would go up and consumption would go down.

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I heard what he said in his speech. All issues are being discussed. It is not something that we are particularly focusing on right now.

The export of plastics was touched on by Tahir Ali and by the shadow Minister. We have committed to banning the export of waste to non-OECD countries, and we are working with other global partners to implement our obligations under the Basel convention and the OECD decision on waste. We have a robust system, run by the Environment Agency, for compliance and tackling any illegal exports of plastic. It is doing increasingly focused work on that. At a national level, I am sure the shadow Minister will be pleased to hear that we are committed to tackling waste crime, mandatory electronic waste tracking and the overhauling and improving of the carrier, broker and dealer regime. We are moving on with that very shortly. This was mentioned in the Environment Bill as well, as she knows. Our comprehensive electronic waste tracking system will help regulators to identify illegal and non-compliant activity.

What next? Many councils are already doing great work on recycling. We are determined to learn more, and to ensure that every household can recycle easily, as my hon. Friend Andrew Selous mentioned. We have myriad different systems, but clarity will be key, as well as guidance, because the Environment Bill requires a core set of materials to be collected by every council, to make recycling easier across the board.

We will seek powers under the Bill to introduce the deposit return scheme that so many hon. Members mentioned. It would apply to drinks containers of multiple materials—not just plastic—including packed plastic bottles. That has been very successful in other countries, as we have heard. We have consulted on the all-in-one and on-the-go systems, and we are analysing all that information.

On the digital DRS system, we have a lot of trials running on technology, because we have to harness that. There could be real opportunities there for systems in busy places such as transport hubs—railway stations and so forth—as well as shops. I know Scotland has been working away on the deposit return scheme. I think it has already been delayed and a review is under way, so we will watch how Scotland proceeds with interest. We have the extended producer responsibility scheme, introduced under the Environment Bill. That has a special focus on plastic packaging, because it is the most littered item. We will ensure that companies that place plastic packaging on the market will cover the costs of disposal, rather than passing it on to the taxpayer, which is what happens at the moment.

In addition, from April next year, the plastic packaging tax will impose a charge of £200 a tonne on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. It is estimated that that will lead to 40% more recycled plastic used in packaging by 2022-23, which will cut carbon emissions by 200,000 tonnes. I think all hon. Members and friends will agree that that will be significant; it will make a big difference to our moving in the right direction, and it will happen very shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned incineration. In October 2020, we legislated to include a permit condition for landfill and incineration operators, which means that they cannot accept separately collected paper, metal, glass or plastic for landfill or incineration unless it has gone through some form of treatment process first and that is the best environmental outcome.

I hope this demonstrates how many measures are under way and will be coming forward shortly to help us to reach all those targets and to tackle this issue, which I think we all agree is a scourge. We must do something about it, but we genuinely are moving at great speed in the right direction.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 5:28 pm, 8th September 2021

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in what has been a really good debate. Geraint Davies spoke about the cost of plastic; my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers mentioned the need for councils to do more. Tahir Ali spoke about leaving a good future for our children, and my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie spoke about how changes in behaviour on bags have given us hope. Patricia Gibson spoke powerfully about international responsibility and working together, and my hon. Friend Andrew Selous gave us some good international examples. I would happily join him on a trip to Lithuania, if he is offering.

I hope that Mr Kipling has listened to what the SNP spokesman, Dave Doogan said; I would hate him to have to reduce his intake of Mr Kipling’s cakes, as they are fantastic. I thank the Minister for her reply, and the action she and the Government are taking. I know all right hon. and hon. Members here and across the House will continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire over this issue, and I am sure the Minister welcomes that. I also thank the Commons Chamber Engagement team and those who took part in the survey for helping us to prepare for today’s debate; it has been very informative.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered reducing plastic waste.

Sitting adjourned.