MPs have called for a tax on all single-use plastic packaging and also raised concerns that compostable plastics are being introduced without consumers knowing how to dispose of them.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says a “fundamental shift” away from all single-use packaging is needed to help the environment. It says the government should review systems where customers can reuse and refill containers to see what works and where official intervention could encourage retailers to offer refillable options.
The government has unveiled plans to improve recycling rates, with a greater responsibility on producers to pay for the costs of dealing with packaging, a deposit return scheme on drinks containers and more consistency in local council recycling collections.
The committee’s report, which looked specifically at food and drink packaging, backed these moves.
It also called for the proposed plastic packaging tax – which will tax packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content – to have lower fees for higher levels of recycled material.
In the backlash against plastic, there was increasing use of alternatives such as aluminium, glass, paper and plastics made from biological materials or which are compostable, the report found.
However, these all have environmental impacts, potentially causing problems such as pushing up energy use and carbon emissions, while there is confusion over compostable plastics and issues with disposing of them, the report stated.
Committee chairman Neil Parish said: “We all know that plastic pollution of our rivers and seas is a huge problem. However, replacing plastic with other materials isn’t always the best solution, as all materials have an environmental impact.
“My committee is also concerned that compostable plastics have been introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding about how to dispose of them. Fundamentally, substitution is not the answer, and we need to look at ways to cut down on single-use packaging.”
Refill schemes already being piloted include the Waitrose Unpacked trial being rolled out to several stores, which has refillable options for products ranging from wine and beer to cereals, pasta and cleaning products.
Another is Loop, run by TerraCycle and set to be piloted in collaboration with Tesco, which will deliver products ordered online to homes in reusable containers that will then be collected, cleaned and refilled.
The report said parliament should lead by example and try to remove all single-use packaging from its catering facilities.
The MPs said the government was not putting enough emphasis on reducing plastic food and drink packaging in the first place, and called for a fundamental shift away from all single-use packaging of various materials.
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Mr Parish said: “Currently, packaging labelling can be confusing, unclear, or even misleading. Ensuring that all local authorities collect the same plastics for recycling will make it easier for packaging to be labelled, so consumers know whether that packaging is recyclable or not.”
The growth in single-use consumer plastics has fuelled a surge in plastic pollution around the world. It is estimated there are now 5.25 trillion pieces of ocean plastic debris, and a recent report estimated the quantity of plastic in the sea will treble by 2025.
Around 40 per cent of plastics are thought to enter the waste stream in the same year they are produced.
Louise Edge, head of Greenpeace UK’s ocean plastics campaign, told The Independent: “Plastic is harmful to wildlife and remains in our oceans for hundreds of years.
“But when companies switch from plastic to paper packaging, this amounts to chopping down trees to save the oceans, and all too often so-called compostable alternatives don’t actually break down as they should. These are false solutions.
“Shifting away from all single-use packaging is definitely the right move. The government must act on the recommendation to review reusable and refillable packaging models, and must set clear plastic reduction targets in the upcoming environment bill.”
Additional reporting by PA