UK Politics

MPs debate call for ban on non-recyclable packaging

Plastic on beach Image copyright Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The public has "woken up" and is ready to do more to cut plastic pollution, MPs have been told.

They were debating a petition, signed by almost 250,000 people, urging the government to ban all non-recyclable food packaging.

Opening, Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, said mishandling of plastic waste was leading to a "public health emergency" in poorer countries.

The environment minister said he wanted to "help people make the right choice".

It is estimated the UK uses five million tonnes of plastic every year - nearly half of which is packaging - and demand is rising.

The petition lists just some of the packaging it would like to see abolished, including cereal box inner bags, plastic fruit and vegetable packets, crisp packets, sweets wrappers and Styrofoam.

It states: "Today the Earth is at a crisis point due to our plastic consumption, and as a result, people in the UK are more willing than ever to engage in recycling.

"So much food packaging remains completely, frustratingly unrecyclable. Let's aim for the UK to lead the world with a 100% recycling rate."

Plastic waste often does not decompose and can last for centuries in landfill. Other items end up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn can pollute soils, rivers and oceans, and harm the creatures that inhabit them.

Mr Zeichner told Westminster Hall: "We have woken up. There is genuine public recognition of the climate crisis and real concern over the natural destruction caused by non-recyclable waste."

He said evidence showed plastic waste led to disease and death in developing countries, and in the eyes of some charities now constituted a public health emergency.

"Buying food without throwaway packaging is becoming increasingly popular," he continued.

"At the start of the month Waitrose launched the new 'unpacked' model with a dedicated refillable zone of products including cereal, pasta and fish.

"The reaction to the trial was 97% positive on social media."

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Media captionTackling the world's single-use plastic problem

Robert Goodwill, minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, said the issue was one of "great concern" and the number of signatories was testament to the depth of feeling among the public.

"The government shares the public's concerns and has set out ambitious plans to tackle the problem," he said, but stressed that some materials were harder to recycle than others.

"I should stress we have no plans to ban the use of food packaging that cannot be recycled. Most food packaging is technically recyclable, though the current market does not make all recycling economically viable.

"Our general approach is to help people and companies make the right choice and develop alternatives, rather than move to banning items outright."

As well as government-led initiatives, the minister said "consumer-driven progress" - for example, the growth in reusable coffee cups - was an important factor too.

However, there have been instances - as with plastic straws and microbeads - where a wholesale ban was appropriate.

Mr Goodwill said the government had been consulting on proposals to incentivise producers to make more sustainable packaging design choices.

Mr Zeichner thanked the minister for his reply, but took issue with the idea that Labour and the government were in the same place on the issue.

The former would be "much more interventionist", he added.

Plastic tax

The government has said its Resources and Waste Strategy for England, published in December, sets out plans to reduce plastic pollution and a move towards a more circular economy.

It builds on commitments made in the 25-Year Environment Plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste.

In a bid to limit ocean pollution, the government will introduce new controls on single use plastic items in England by April 2020.

The measures cover plastic straws, plastic drinks stirrers and plastic cotton buds.

Earlier this year, Chancellor Philip Hammond also asked for views on the potential benefits of a plastics tax.

Takeaway boxes, disposable cups, plastic wrap and cigarette filters are some of the items he is consulting on.

The idea is that putting tax on single-use plastics would help drive behavioural change, and stop plastic littering streets, countryside and coastline.

Other countries including Canada and Ireland have already promised to take tougher action.