Baroness Neville-Rolfe: Plastics pollution is becoming a serious scourge we must energetically tackle

Posted On: 
7th February 2018

Former Minister and Tesco Director writes ahead of her Lords Question today on 'Reducing the use of plastic and ensuring the maximum amount is recycled'.


Today I have a question tabled in the House of Lords on plastic and recycling. I have been running a campaign since my family focus group said this was a good issue last June. The other identified was housing and I am glad that both are now the subject of widespread excitement – and indeed Prime Ministerial attention, on non-Brexit days.

The problem with plastic is that it is in the main not degradable – the polymers from which it is made, usually from oil, can last for centuries. Since the 1950s it is estimated that we have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic; production could  increase, unless we do more, to 34 billion tonnes by 2020.This is a big industry, but it is also unsustainable in its present form. The Government’s 25 year plan has a chapter on resource efficiency and waste, but so far as plastic is concerned there is too much reliance on marginal measures like requiring hard pressed small shops to join the supermarkets in charging for single use bags.

If we are to move the dial we need seriously to consider four things.

We need to tackle plastic at source and require companies and agencies to ask themselves whether non-degradable plastic could be replaced by a better alternative. We must look at machinery, car parts, white goods, housing, toys, food packaging, clothing tags and pots for plants - as well as the plastic straws, single use coffee cups, water bottles, glue in tea bags and microbeads which are currently attracting fire. Have you ever noticed that hospitals are full of plastic, much of it no doubt for a good reason?

A tax is one way of encouraging focus, but applied in the UK alone, it would discriminate against our industries and consumers. A national tax break for innovation in plastic or worldwide action, driven by the G20 makes better sense. Since much of the ocean plastic found by Planet Earth II comes from developing countries in Asia and Africa, we should also use some of the 0.7 per cent Overseas Development budget to tackle this - many poor people depend on threatened fish stocks.

Second, we need to invest in R&D, for example on degradable bioplastics. The brilliance of our scientists could transform the landscape. I remember introducing biodegradable carrier bags at Tesco, but they were insufficiently robust. I am sure that can be overcome.

Third, we need to engage the consumer. Shops can help us to do this. So can the fast food outlets and the catering trade. Plastic-free aisles, water fountains, giving up plastic items for Lent, tackling black plastic trays which wreck recycling, can all create a new tone and a marketing advantage. That in turn leads to innovation in the supply chain. It would be even better to find ways in which reducing plastic saves money - incentives can deliver mass change.

Finally, we must solve the problem of different recycling systems, one of the main reasons for our flat recycling rates. Some like Trafford Council and South Oxfordshire do much better than some others. Why not introduce one single set of rules for all councils replacing the many variations of today? With support I would happily introduce a private members bill to encourage just that. It could end those bad-tempered conversations about yoghurt pots, margarine boxes, blueberry trays, fruit juices bottles and interdental sticks. I defy most of you to guess the correct bin for each of these.

In short we need energetically to tackle what is becoming a serious scourge.

The Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG is a Conservative peer