Baroness Neville-Rolfe: Resources and Waste Strategy is an opportunity not to be missed

Posted On: 
19th December 2018

Former Minister and Tesco Director, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, writes ahead of her Lords debate today on plastic recycling, that the Resources and Waste Strategy offers "a major opportunity to move decisively forward and deliver the single system of recycling that manufacturers, processors, retailers, food service and confused consumers are all crying out for".  

Credit: 
PA

Today I am leading a debate in the House of Lords on the urgent problem of plastics.

Plastics were considered to be close to a miracle when they were discovered in the 20th century. They are indestructible, cheap as a by-product of petrol, lightweight, ubiquitous and useful in so many ways. 

But in recent years we have all come to appreciate they also have major drawbacks with which we need to deal. For example because most of them do not degrade naturally, plastic litters the oceans and the landscape, poses a serious threat to wildlife which become entangled in it and/or mistake it for food, and may also pose a risk to human health. Blue Planet II has alerted us graphically to this danger.

From 1950 to 2015 the world produced 7.8 billion tonnes, more than one tonne for every person on the planet today.Worse, the amount of plastic in the environment is increasing at an alarming rate and unless we take action, will continue doing so indefinitely.

The government has this week published its Resources and Waste Strategy. It is a complex tome, but it rightly emphasises the need to tackle plastic. To my mind there are four simple areas to tackle. 

First, we need to encourage less use of plastic, for example in packaging, whilst keeping food safe. 

Second, we need to encourage the development of new types of plastic which, while having the same advantages, are degradable. We also need more research into substitutes. 

Third, we need to recycle a much higher proportion of the plastic produced. Incentives can play a greater part as I know from my experience at Tesco. I am far from sure that all the various Government proposals for taxes, producer responsibility and consumer deposits and charges are needed, but look forward to analysing the responses to consultation.

And fourth we need to clear up the present environmental mess especially in some of our oceans. This means both working with the Chinese as their rivers are still the biggest source of the problem, and re-directing development aid in South Asia. In other words we should reduce the rate at which problems are created and put the process into reverse thereby reduce the absolute size of the existing problem.

As part of my investigation of the subject I have been talking to recycling companies. The good news is that technological progress continues to be made. For example Viridor – working with Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsburys - tell me there are hopes that black plastic, until now normally regarded as unrecyclable, will soon be fully recyclable. That would be a major step forward.

But I am concerned that there is no national system for recycling and the rules differ widely in different parts of the country. This confuses consumers and inhibits investment. Further, until recently we exported a large part of our plastic waste to the Far East. China now refuses to accept most of it so we need to solve our own problems. But this means, as regards dealing with plastic waste, that we in the UK need to do more than we expected until recently.

The new strategy touches on all of this and promises a more consistent approach to recycling, but I fear that the present very complicated and bureaucratic system will be tweaked rather than reformed fundamentally. If so we will lose a major opportunity to move decisively forward and deliver the single system of recycling that manufacturers, processors, retailers, food service and confused consumers are all crying out for.         

Baroness Neville-Rolfe is a Conservative peer