Anne Main speaks in debate on unsustainable packaging

24th June 2019

Anne Main calls on the Government to look at reducing the demand for plastic, find incentives to encourage businesses to recycle and re-use and tackle composite packaging which is difficult to recycle.

 
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and to participate in this timely debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of plastic waste, I must put it on the record that, as a society, we cannot turn back the clock. I recognise that there is nostalgia for days past, but I really believe that the public would struggle if we tried to get rid of plastic altogether. What we need is to minimise waste from plastic by reusing it wherever we can and ensuring that it is not a throwaway, disposal commodity.

We have got addicted to plastic—we even have chocolates with plastic toys inside. It is so important to slim down the plastic agenda, but we must recognise that some things need to be made of it; I really stress that point, because, if we are not careful, in our desire to take a messianic approach we might end up swapping one problem for another, much as we did when we all embraced diesel cars. We do not want to increase food waste or the number of heavy bottles being transported around the country; we need to decide whether we actually need that packaging, rather than replacing it with something in a different form that might be just as damaging.

St Albans cares deeply about environmental issues and I am grateful to the 464 people from St Albans who signed the petition, because we all need that pressure. I hosted an event on the Terrace with the Coalition for Global Prosperity, which wants to take plastic out of the environment. David Attenborough was the chief guest and was enormously impressive, inspiring the audience in a way that no one else can. One thing he said that stayed with me was that when he was a little boy, his science teacher said, “Boys, you are at the cusp of something really exciting. We have had the ages of stone, iron and steel; now we are in the age of plastic—and it will never, ever go away.” That is our Midas curse: plastic does not go away, so we will have to come up with formulations that make it truly compostable.

We must also ensure that packaging is not mixed. I visited Tesco in my constituency a couple of weeks ago, where the composition of some packaging is so mixed that it makes things very difficult, whether that is the little windows on sandwich boxes or Pringles packets—unfortunately for poor old Pringles, it is seen as one of the worst, with plastic at the end, metal at the bottom and cardboard down the middle. We need to tackle that composite packaging and ask ourselves whether we can work smarter to ensure that our packaging is truly compostable.

We must be realistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), whose constituency is a lovely place, mentioned the concerns of farmers. We have moved so far away from natural products that sheep farmers tell me it costs more to shear a sheep than the fleece was ever worth, yet it was not so many years ago that wool was an extremely valuable resource. Now we have plastic in insulation materials, and we put plastic carpets on the floor because they are scrubbable and durable—all the things that we value about it are the flipside of the plastic curse.

We need to look at how to encourage the public to demand less plastic. The plastic that we cannot see is often more injurious than the plastic that we can see. We can be virtuous about seeing bottles and packaging, taking them along to recycling and feeling that we have done our bit, but it worries me that people are washing their Polartec fleeces—sorry; that is a brand, and I know that some fleeces are made from plastic bottles now, but fleecy jumpers and even polyester clothes knock off little bits of plastic into the environment, where it goes into the sea and is ingested by fish, filter feeders and so on. Our beaches are littered with nurdles, which are little tides and drifts of coloured plastic. Because it is indestructible, so to speak—I know that there are compostable variations now—and has been there for such a long time, we have a legacy of plastic. That is what I would like the Government to look at, as much as anything: the legacy of plastic from Governments of years past.

We, the countries of the modern age, have been the worst polluters. Our plastic piles up on shores or beaches and drifts around. That was the focus of David Attenborough’s wonderful “Blue Planet”: people may think that they can scoop up the floating bottles and the job is done, but the reality is that a lot of plastic has become a soup, which is very hard to remove. I would like to see more of our investment in international aid spent on clearing up that soup made from the plastic of years ago. I am all for improving the environmental impact that we are having now, but we cannot rebalance the scales without taking into account the damage that we have all done over the years.

We have become a throwaway society. We throw away clothes that may have been worn only once, which have been produced incredibly cheaply and are often wrapped massively in plastic when they come through the door. We are addicted to online retailing, which often comes with huge amounts of polystyrene around the more delicate items. We have to start looking at how we are shopping as consumers and at how we are living.

This is a massively important debate, but it can make you feel as if your head is going to fall off, because there are so many strands to the plastic story. I am keen to avoid a silo mentality. I applaud the petition for its genuine interest in packaging, but we must also look at the composition of packaging and help businesses to have a much better recycling rate. It seems perverse that in St Albans there are recycling boxes and cartons outside houses, yet businesses have to deal with the waste themselves. We need to incentivise big companies about their packaging and ensure that there is a market for it.

To my shame—although it is nothing to do with me—my constituency has one of the biggest waste tips for supposedly compostable and recyclable wood. The Appspond Lane site has been a disaster over the years because there is plasticised paint on most of the wood that is left there, so there is no market for it; it has sat there as a wet, rotting mountain that catches fire when it exceeds the allowed level. That means that we are kidding ourselves when we put packaging on our doorstep and think that it is being dealt with properly elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) mentioned Tearfund, which I hope to do some work with in Bangladesh in September. From the work that I do in Bangladesh, I know that it has an awful lot of plastic packaging but does not have a good recycling industry. We have exported our waste, but not the technology for recycling. When the Department for International Development puts money into countries like that, I would like to see us doing more than trying to stop the tide of waste. There is so much legacy plastic—when we go to those countries, we see rivers, lakes and beaches polluted with it. We need to help countries to increase their recycling, but we also need to cut down our thirst and hunger for plastic in goods and packaging, as well as the legacy plastic that our society has put there.

I welcome today’s debate, which I think will be the first of many. We need to look at how we have got addicted to plastic. At the event that I mentioned, David Attenborough left us with the words that plastic is with us forever. Every time even the smallest bit gets thrown away, we have to remember that it will be there somewhere, and the fact that it may not land on our shores does not mean that it will not land on someone else’s. I really hope that we will hear some joined-up thinking from the Minister today about weaning ourselves off plastic goods, including gratuitous plastic toys given as freebies to small children with meals at certain restaurants, as well as polystyrene foam wraps from fish and chip shops or other outlets.

We have to wean ourselves off plastic, but we cannot expect young mums to do away with disposable nappies. I have met the Nappy Alliance, which is trying to get people to use less plasticised nappies, but there is a huge amount of plastic that we have welcomed into our lives because it stops leaks or protects against things. The amount of clingfilm that we use, some of which is putting gender-altering phthalates into the environment, has concerned me for years. That is why it is thought there has been a rise in the hermaphrodisation of fish, and so on.

Our contact with plastic is huge and in the future people will ask why on earth we did not realise quite how injurious this was, not only to the environment but to those people and animals and plants in the environment that suffer as a result of plastic toxicity. I hope that this debate is part of a joined-up debate, Minister, and that we will all be encouraged today by hearing about lots of different avenues that will be open to us. We should not just be picking up our plastic waste, but cutting off the stream.

Hansard

 

Interventions in the same debate

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the packaging surrounding the goods we buy, but there are also the goods themselves. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of plastic waste, I note that we have weaned ourselves off natural products and fibres and on to plasticised ones. Many of our clothes and carpets are polypropylene. We are wrapping plastic in plastic, and that is a real concern. Does he agree that we need to look at the whole big picture and have a shift back toward both more natural packaging, and more natural fibres within the packaging?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes a powerful point; I will touch on it a little later, but I suspect that others will want to amplify it further. When I look around the world, there are other countries that have perhaps not gone so far down this path, and some of their lifestyles are very attractive—dare I say it, but even some European lifestyles are very attractive indeed.

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On the recycling of bottles, I took the APPG to the Veolia recycling plant in Dagenham. A problem that we have is that a lot of plastic cannot be used more than once. That plant had empty machines because it needs to feed those machines. It is a dilemma: the more we take plastic out of the system, the more recycling becomes too expensive to do. That is something we have to think about.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We can recycle plastics, but if we recycle a mix of different plastics, we find that we get a very low-grade reusable plastic. If compostable plastics are mixed with the non-compostable, we have another problem. Everything in life is not simple; as with every inquiry that one does, the more one looks into the issue, the more complicated it becomes. I am a practical farmer, and the one thing that I want to see is that we really do good by reducing the amount of plastic, having properly compostable plastics and doing something that actually works. We have to be careful. Governments of all colours will naturally say, “Let’s tick this box. We’ve recycled this; we’ve done this; we’ve done that.” But does it actually work? Does it improve the environment? That is the issue.

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We have all become used to seeing huge bales of hay in fields covered in plastic shrink wrap. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?

If my hon. Friend could guarantee the weather, so that we did not have to wrap the silage because of the rain and could make it all into hay, we could do away with a lot of plastic. She is right that we could use less plastic.

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Thinking about my Appspond Lane heap of wood, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has to be a market, some incentivisation to use the recycled goods? Otherwise, they become a valueless commodity; they might be recycled but no one wants them.

The hon. Lady is exactly right. That is clearly an important part of the entire recycling cycle.

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