Shadow minister for waste and recycling Sandy Martin has told MPs that recycling rates have flatlined because of cutbacks to council budgets.
Speaking in a parliamentary debate on plastics pollution, Martin (pictured) said: “After years of austerity, local government, which is responsible for waste and recycling, has been left underfunded and understaffed.”
He said it would take time to introduce an effective producer-pays system for plastic and, in the meantime, “our local authorities need the capital investment and revenue to maintain their recycling collections, let alone improve them”.
The debate was initiated by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable. He said: “It would help if we had a properly, clearly defined hierarchy of plastic products.
“Some are clearly necessary, highly desirable and beneficial, while others are utterly trivial, wasteful and costly to the environment. If that hierarchy was clearly established by scientific inquiry and promoted by the Government, that would be helpful to local authorities.”
Cable said use of plastics should be reduced because he feared that ,otherwise, exports now barred from China and other Asian countries would end up in places even less equipped to cope with them.
“Are we looking for cheap and nasty disposal in Africa or will it be stocked and dealt with here, and if so, how?” he asked.
“To deal with it involves incentives and support for the reprocessing industry—not just recycling, but reprocessing…That requires tax because, at the moment, it is unattractive to reprocess. It is much more profitable to export.”
Labour MP Rachael Maskell, who gave up using plastic for Lent this year, said she had found it harder than expected given the prevalence of plastic packaging: “As a consumer, I was given no choice but to walk out of the supermarket and rethink my life.”
Closing the debate, environment minister Therese Coffey said it would be unwise simply to replace plastic packaging with metal or paper since “emissions would be generated because heavier goods would be transported around the country, around the world, in fact”.
Coffey said plastics should be designed to be reusable or recyclable more easily, and the proposed extended producer responsibility for packaging would work with the planned tax on non-recycled plastics “to improve recycling rates, and the revenue collected from these measures will enable investment in further action to address the issues surrounding single-use plastics, waste and litter”.