We have a responsibility to find a realistic and environmentally friendly alternative to plastic
We must fight plastic pollution and take responsibility for the waste we produce, starting with a fundamental shift away from all single-use food and drink packaging, writes Neil Parish MP.
Plastic waste has been at the forefront of public interest for the past few years, spurred on by the Blue Planet effect. There is, quite rightly, outrage at the impact of plastic pollution on the natural environment.
Once plastic packaging becomes waste, most of it does not biodegrade – which damages the environment and affects a range of marine species. Plastic food and drink packaging, according to estimates by WRAP, amount to around half of the 2.3 million tonnes of plastic packaging placed on the UK market each year.
That’s why, as Chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I wanted to launch a specific inquiry into plastic food and drink packaging. We needed to look at whether there are realistic, useful and environmentally friendly alternatives to plastics - and how they perform when compared to plastic food and drink packaging.
This week, MPs like myself pressed the Environment Minister to look carefully at the conclusions and recommendations of our report.
Firstly, we need better statistics and reporting systems on recycling.
Currently, businesses that produce less than 50 tonnes of packaging per year do not have to report on how much packaging they place on the market. We think that threshold should be lowered to just one tonne.
On top of this, 60 percent of what is classed as recycled is actually exported abroad. All of us will be concerned by media reports and documentaries showing our plastic exports ending up in countries where they are landfilled or burned instead.
We need to take responsibility for the waste we produce.
We therefore need simpler recycling systems, with clear labelling for consumers and consistency in collections. Public awareness of the need to recycle has grown, but execution remains confused. Some items, for instance, can only be industrially composted - so they end up contaminating our recycling.
Given these issues, we believe more emphasis should be placed on reducing plastics in the first place. As we know from health, prevention is often much better than cure.
Far too many supermarket items are covered in plastic, when nature has already provided protection. We need more loose fruit and vegetables.
We also need consumers to change habits. We have already seen the shift from disposable bottles and coffee cups towards refillable drinks containers. The same is needed for reusable and refillable packaging.
Plastic is ubiquitous for a reason. It is a useful material for food and drink packaging. It also protects hygiene and helps reduce food waste. However, if we want to better protect our environment, a fundamental shift away from all single-use food and drink packaging, plastic or otherwise, is going to be necessary. Ministers, industry and consumers will all have to take action.
The current impetus for fighting plastic pollution and protecting the environment must not result in unintended consequences, nor must it be a historic missed opportunity to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution once and for all.
Neil Parish is Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and Chair of the Select Committee of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.