Debate on Plastics Recycling

I spoke today on the importance of reducing plastic waste.  We all have a responsibility to reduce waste where we can and, hopefully, to encourage reduced production of non-recyclable waste where possible.  I know the Environment Secretary is passionate about reducing waste and his department have done much in recent years to recognise and address the problem, but I do feel we are moving far too slowly.  We must do more to address our throwaway approach to the environment, and I was pleased to hear the Minister outline what work the Government is doing to address this.

6.50 pm

Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this important debate.


As an individual, I welcome the fact that the Government have already banned plastic microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products. Previously, each time someone showered with such products, tens of thousands of microbeads began their tortuous journey into our oceans, putting our marine life at risk. I also welcome the 5p charge that we have introduced for single-use plastic bags, which has reduced their use by approximately 88%, and the deposit return scheme that the Government propose for drink bottles. Such a scheme is not a novel concept for those who, like me, are of a certain vintage. I recall earlier schemes for glass, for bottles of milk, soft drinks or beer, and for jam jars—some hon. Members present may recognise the term “jeelie jars”—which had a value at the Co-operative.


The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made the very good point that giving waste a value helps to reduce or recycle it. That theory stands up well. It is particularly encouraging that plastic bottles of mineral water are no longer on sale here in Parliament and that, to my surprise, the House recently introduced a 25p surcharge for disposable coffee cups. Being a Scots fellow—this may apply to those from Yorkshire as well—I paid it just the once and will not be paying it again, so the system works. Both measures are very sound.


The Chancellor spoke in his spring statement about the Government’s commitment to help to protect critical habitats, including by supporting the Ascension Island Council’s call to designate some of its waters as a marine ​protected area, having proposed in the 2018 Budget a new tax on the manufacture or import of plastic packaging of less than 30% recyclable material. As in many cases, however, there is a negative side. A recent article on marine conservation by Eleanor Church highlighted the “plastic soup” of waste in the north Pacific vortex, which potentially covers an immense 1.6 million sq km and weighs an estimated 80,000 metric tonnes, which is unimaginable—it is certainly beyond my imagination. Who done it? We done it.


Mr Sheerman

I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I understand that a Scottish university—I think it is Edinburgh, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me—is doing some really interesting research into the possibility of solar-powered autonomous vehicles controlling the seas and oceans, sucking up the plastic, chipping it and taking it to the nearest port for recycling. I really think that that is part of the future.


Bill Grant

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure which Scottish university is doing that research, but I think it may be Edinburgh. Although it has not been proven, that is an innovative idea for recovering what we have polluted our oceans with, and I certainly hope that the researchers make progress with it. I wish them well and hope that the UK Government or the Scottish Government will encourage such research, because we really need it to work and materialise.


Regrettably, I understand that a vortex also exists in the north Atlantic. Such vortexes of waste are a shame on our society and on western society, because we are responsible for that pollution. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I hope we can find a way to remove it, because it is a threat to marine life and to the humans who ply and fish the waters affected.


We need to seriously address our throwaway approach to life and our frequently irrational desire to cosset our purchases in excessive packaging that may not be entirely recyclable if it is composed of polymers, particularly given how much plastic waste we produce here in the United Kingdom. Even going by the middle figure, we produce a phenomenal amount: approximately 3.7 million tonnes annually. Nevertheless, by signing up in December 2017 to the UN resolution on marine litter and microplastics, the UK Government have taken a step, albeit a small one, in the correct direction, with the aim of further combating marine litter. I also applaud the Scottish Government for publishing a strategy and a plan to address marine litter.


It is worthy of note that retailers in the United Kingdom —I nearly said “Every little helps”—are attempting to do their bit for the environment. I understand that Waitrose has pledged to stop using black plastic trays by the end of this year. That is to be welcomed, as is the fact that other retailers have indicated that they will follow suit, thereby reducing the volume of such material that, regrettably, ends up in landfill.


In looking forward, we must reflect on past generations, who rarely bought pre-packaged goods. They coped with a minimalist approach, often relying on greaseproof paper or paper bags to take home the essentials; I am sure that in those days the paper would have ended up as fuel for the home fire. Similarly, the “make do and ​mend” ethos that was applied to natural fabrics in bygone eras needs to be applied again, where possible, and we need to consider carefully our constant use of synthetic textiles with the potential to shed polluting microfibres.


I note that the UK Government are hopeful that their resources and waste strategy will lead to significant improvements, including by ending confusion over recycling. We have to make recycling simpler; I note that the Ayrshire councils make a great effort to provide receptacles, but as a nation we do not seem able to select the correct one.


Mr Sheerman

People have put forward some very simplistic solutions, such as not exporting waste any more, but does the hon. Gentleman accept the view from the industry that if we stopped exporting waste, especially for reprocessing in Europe, our country would be full of plastic? We would be up to our necks in it. Much of our reprocessing takes place in Europe, and if we come out of the European Union, those exports will be banned.


Bill Grant

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very clearly, but my answer is that as a nation we have to learn to reduce our use of plastic. Let us not produce so much in the first place—and if we do produce it, it should have to be recyclable. It was mentioned earlier that China is no longer accepting waste imports, but why should we burden other nations with our waste? Let us reduce our waste and live under a managed waste system that we can cope with, without burdening other nations. We also need to make the polluter pay and generally reform the packaging producer responsibility system.


It will be interesting in due course to digest the response to the Government’s call for evidence and the findings that emanate from the recent consultations. I know that lately the Minister and the Department have taken greater steps on environmental matters than ever before, but I would be delighted to see a special focus on plastic waste. In the meantime, can the Minister confirm what support, if any, the Government are providing for the various plastic initiatives such as the waste and resources action plan, the plastics industry recycling action plan and the UK circular plastics network? We have done a great deal, but there is no doubt that a great deal more needs to be done to reduce the dependency of this nation and others on plastic.