Gillian speaks in a Westminster Hall debate on plastic food and drink packaging

Gillian Keegan:

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), whose constituency includes the Scilly Isles.

Plastic packaging and its impacts on the environment, for many of us and certainly in my case, burst into our consciousness when Sir David Attenborough put a spotlight on the impacts that our activities are having beneath the waves. Perhaps it is because my hon. Friend and I both represent coastal constituencies that that really hit home. ​I probably do not have quite as much coast around my constituency as he does, but I do have in my area the extremely sunny Selsey, the Witterings, which also has blue flag beaches, Bracklesham Bay, Chichester harbour itself, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and Bosham. This issue really matters to people in my constituency, because the coast really matters—for many reasons, ranging from tourism to fishing.

Those programmes about plastic really did cut through. So much so that some surveys have even suggested—get this—that the British public care more about plastic pollution than Brexit. Obviously, being in this place, we find that incredibly hard to believe, but apparently 82% of people are now trying to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that they throw away, and I know from meeting people across my constituency that they feel the same. Everyone wants to do the right thing. I am always struck by the fact that the British people are very good at trying to do the right thing, but often we confuse them with mixed messages. The education that we give is not sufficient. The situation is so difficult because we have introduced systems that are non-standardised and are incredibly difficult for people to follow.

The recent report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), whom I thank for securing this debate, highlights the huge amount of work ahead of us if we are truly to get to grips with this issue. I fully agree with many of the recommendations in the report. It was a very thorough report, on which the Chair and the other members of the Select Committee are to be congratulated.

 

(Intervened: Douglas Chapman)

On consistency across the UK and trying to have a more joined-up approach, in Scotland, we are about to launch the deposit return scheme. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has said, there are good examples from across the country, which we can evaluate and spread wider, to share that benefit across the UK.

 

Gillian Keegan:

The hon. Gentleman is right. We have an opportunity to standardise a new scheme—well, an old scheme that has been brought back—that we are not introducing. I hope the Minister takes note that we should be working together to ensure we have standardised schemes.

We need to get to grips with the current situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned, the report rightly emphasises the current inadequacy in the monitoring of plastic usage. That impacts our ability to accurately calculate our usage. Some surveys suggest that we are putting about 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging into the UK market each year, but we need to do more to know exactly how much we are using.

Our priority must be to use less plastic. There is a whole host of solutions to help us achieve that. We have seen fantastic results from the 5p plastic bag, which led to a significant reduction, with 15.6 million fewer bags used since 2015. There is scope to extend that to other forms of packaging and products where suitable alternatives exist.

We all know that immediate changes can be made. The thing that bugs me is crisps: every packet I buy is half empty. Introducing regulation around packaging, ​so that it is designed around product size, instead of making things look bigger, would be a good start. Many shops and some supermarkets are going further.

 

(Intervened: Jim Shannon)

As my friend, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), mentioned, some of the schemes run in Scotland have been done in Northern Ireland, too. The plastic bag charge has been incredibly successful in Northern Ireland, to such an extent that the use of plastic bags has reduced to about 20% or 25%—a massive reduction. It has been successful because people want it to be successful, because children tell their parents that they must do it and because that money goes back into society and can help environmental projects. We should be pushing more on that.

 

Gillian Keegan:

I completely agree. As well as being influenced by children, consumer behaviour can take some time to change. I remember coming home from this place late at night and I would never have plastic bags with me to go shopping—I am sure many of us have done the same—but I have solved that problem by buying one of these little fold-up bags, so at least I always have that. We also have reusable plastic bottles. I have lost mine again today. I do not know how many I have lost. I am sure my impact on the environment in lost water bottles is greater than what I have saved, so now I have taken to reusing this plastic bottle. I think I am not supposed to refill it, but I do anyway.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to move towards being plastic-free. Everywhere we go, we see more and more plastic. Once we become conscious of it, that is it, we see it everywhere. Some supermarkets are moving to packaging-free aisles and even the funny-shaped potatoes, which my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), referred to—I have seen them with a little bit of soil on them, but I am sure that is just for authenticity.

Last year, I opened Stansted Park farm shop, in my constituency. The whole business has an environmentally friendly ethos. Most of their produce is loose. It has drastically reduced all plastic use. There is a future model in package-free and refill shops, similar to the old-fashioned way. My grandmother used to have glass jars for everything. We used to take them to the shops and they would be refilled from huge sacks. I can see the hon. Member for Strangford nodding, because he remembers the same. We are obviously around the same age.

E-commerce could play an important role in this area by delivering food in reusable boxes on a subscription or bespoke order model. We need to do something about e-commerce. I do not know if you have noticed this, Mr Stringer, but when I order my stuff, it comes in several different deliveries, with several different delivery drivers coming to my house two or three times a day. Maybe I am just a prolific shopper, but they could deliver them by a more transport-friendly mechanism. Moving to online shopping does not necessarily mean it is environmentally friendly, so we need to encourage those businesses, as well.

The humble cucumber has been mentioned a few times. Apparently, wrapped, they have a shelf-life of 15 days when chilled, but only nine days when unwrapped. That is true. They go all soft when they are unwrapped, and they are inedible. Removing plastics in some cases can increase other forms of waste. I do not think there is much market for an end-of-life cucumber. Other forms ​of waste and emissions are released when we consider the entire carbon budget of products. We need to get this right.

I am still driving a diesel car. Why? Because I followed the advice and bought a diesel car. Now, of course, I cannot get rid of it. The market share of diesel cars went from something like 14% to 65%. Everybody followed the advice and then we realised the advice was wrong. We must get the advice right. There are many alternatives, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) suggested, such as seaweeds and potato starch wrapping. That innovation will come the more the Government incentivise innovation.

Most of us have the ambition to use less single-use plastic. Many people now use alternatives. I try to use less in my day-to-day life. I mentioned my water bottle. I also gave up plastic for Lent. It was a nightmare. It was incredibly different and I had to change my whole life for six weeks. I chose an easier option this time, because it was so difficult to give up plastic for six weeks. We need to make this easy. We are consumers and we simply will not do it, if it is incredibly difficult and everybody must carry around glass jars and things that do not fit into everyday life.

 

(Intervened: Jim Shannon)

The hon. Lady referred to consumer behaviour. As I was saying to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, the greatest scourge of this modern age is probably takeaways. I am in the takeaways regularly, but I am talking about the materials they use to wrap the product in. I am old enough—I do not think the hon. Lady is, despite what she says—to remember fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and they tasted great. This system does not allow that to happen. Some of the takeaway companies have come up with some ideas for reducing the products they use. I think the Chairman is looking at me—I think this is an important point. If we want to do something specific and great, we should look at methods to reduce takeaway packaging. That would make a magnificent change to the disposables market.

 

Gillian Keegan:

I completely agree. There were some mentions of takeaways in the report. We could also not have as many takeaways. That is another thing that has changed in the last 20 to 30 years: we eat a lot more takeaway food. It is not very good for us, so there are many reasons, not only environmental, to cut out takeaway food to some degree, and to use more locally sourced products and to cook ourselves. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned home economics. I cannot say that my home economics classes were very successful. When I brought my rock cakes home, my father said he now understood where the name came from and I have not made a cake since.

 

(Intervened: Jim Shannon) That was very harsh!

 

Gillian Keegan:

It was harsh, but, unfortunately, it was true.

Making it easy for people to use less is the first thing. Recycling has a major role to play. We have all said that we need to standardise recycling. Between my home in London and my home in Petworth what and how I can recycle is completely different. When I go back to my parents in Knowsley, their system is not only different, ​but the opposite of what I do at home in Petworth, so I am always putting things in the wrong bin. Even things such as colours could be made so much easier. We have allowed every council to design it. I think that is driven by the design of the equipment at their local recycling centre, what it can do, and how it manages bottle tops and various bits of plastic. That has driven the standards, just by what local authorities have invested in for their recycling facilities.

As part of the endeavours to increase recycling rates, the Government have proposed a new tax system to ensure that at least 30% of packaging is made from recycled material, and I fully support that direction of travel. However, I also think that the Committee’s recommendation to have a more modulated tax system might be more effective in incentivising the use of a greater percentage of recycled material.

We have talked about the deposit return scheme. When I was reading about it, I remember thinking, yet again, “That sounds almost exactly like what used to happen many years ago.” I remember the Alpine lemonade man coming round when I was a child. The bottles then were glass. We used to collect them; in fact, it was the only way we made any pocket money. In fact, for today’s children, there would be a financial incentive for them to collect all of this plastic if they could make some money out of it.

There is not a single school that any of us go into in which we are not asked about insects that are no longer around, which we never even knew existed. Children today are so well educated on the environment; indeed, they are already forcing a generational change. We have a beach school at Chidham, run by one of my schools, and I will ask the staff if they have done the sand experiment for our area. We also have forest schools. I go to schools in Southbourne, Sidlesham, Harting, Loxwood and Rake, and they all have eco-warriors and eco-councils. The questions I get asked in schools are the hardest questions I get; I can talk about Brexit all day long, but with some of these environmental questions, the children have studied to a much greater degree than we ever did. In fact, we did not do any of that in school and now we are struggling to catch up. The children really have a fantastic approach and I am pretty sure that if they were incentivised with cash, they would make sure that they collected everything for deposit return schemes, because it would be a good way of topping up their pocket money.

The 1st Chichester Brownies unit in Christchurch wrote to me recently to ask me to support its plastic promise, which of course I have agreed to do. It aims to raise awareness of plastic pollution and to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics. So those children are not only telling their parents what to do but telling their MPs what to do, which is very welcome. In the letter I received, it was obvious that the Brownies were very excited by the deposit return scheme; they really welcomed it and I can see them going round in their uniforms to pick up all the plastic, and making some cash in the meantime. Probably, that cash will go to good causes, because that is another thing that children get involved in.

I will conclude by emphasising the importance of international co-operation in tackling this issue. Currently, of the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastics that enter the oceans each year, the US, the UK and Europe collectively contribute about 2%. Therefore, the Government’s ​investment of over £60 million to help the Commonwealth nations improve their waste management is vital and is the right approach. We have to show leadership and there is much we can do to help other countries. That would also make a massive impact. I hope that we can continue our domestic journey of self-improvement in this area, and I believe the best way to instil change abroad is to lead by example at home. I also look forward to seeing the technology and innovation that will rise to this challenge, to make sure that we free our world from plastic pollution.