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12 Jun 2007 : Column 195WH—continued

9.54 am

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on starting this important debate.

I declare a kind of interest, in that my father recently retired at the age of 80 from the packaging industry after a distinguished and representative career in the business. From adolescence onwards, I was given a barrage of talks on the virtues of packaging. However, despite that—or possibly because of it—I share most people’s annoyance at the amount of litter and waste that the packaging industry produces and their frustration at the occasional struggle in opening certain packages. I have found no way of getting at small electrical goods, packaged as they are, other than by attacking them vigorously with a pair of scissors, which is clearly not how they are intended to be opened. I have also shared from childhood the disappointment that all people have about the deceit of packaging, particularly at Easter time, when I unpack my egg and find that there is far less chocolate than I thought. I subscribe to the conventional wisdom that there is probably too much packaging, that much is unnecessary and that it ought to be recycled, if not made of recyclable materials.

I recognise much of what the hon. Gentleman said, too. I realise that we cannot return to the old days, when eggs came in a brown paper bag and frequently got broken, when milk was collected in jugs and when potatoes were tipped into shopping bags. Some of us can remember those days, which, to be frank, were not ideal. We also recognise that current packaging performs key tasks. It keeps food fresh and carries lots of information, such as bar codes and the traffic light information that is to come to tell us whether food will make us fat, thin or whatever. Packaging is also necessary to attract clients and identify products. We would be completely lost in a supermarket if there was not a variegated packaging environment—we simply would not know where to find the products that we sought. Packaging also prevents breakage in transit, which is another good thing.

I also accept, as the hon. Gentleman said, that there is not an automatic drive to over-package. There
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cannot be one, because every additional bit of packaging obviously costs somebody something. The public prefer to buy things that are produced in attractive packages and they want things from far afield, which requires an element of packaging so that they can be delivered safely and securely.

I suppose that I am symptomatic of the general dilemma in which most of the public find themselves with regard to packaging. We all agree forcefully with the general claim that there should be less packaging, but we are less clear about which items—Easter eggs and perfume aside—should be unpackaged. Chris Davies, a north-west MEP and political acquaintance of mine, has an obsession with cucumbers and whether they should have cling film around them. I do not know the case for or against, but I have an inkling of what it might be, judging from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. We are confronted with a clear conceptual distinction between necessary and unnecessary packaging, but, in practice, not everyone clarifies it in the same way.

One can therefore understand some of the packaging industry’s grievances. It will claim quite legitimately that it is a major manufacturer—indeed it is—because it contributes to the economy. It will claim quite accurately that it is not responsible for the antisocial disposal of packaging because that is what people do, not what packaging does. The industry also has perfectly valid gripes about how the press treats it.

That said, we should all recognise that disposal is an issue for the industry as well as the community. Disposal contributes to landfill and litter and represents a relatively wasteful use of resources. The solution is to make products’ packaging more reusable and recyclable, and smaller in terms of bulk and volume. Various bits of quite laudable legislation have that as an objective, although it is not necessarily their effect. There is a debate about the plastic bag tax, which would have beneficial effects, such as reducing the demand for plastic bags, but might increase the demand for paper packaging. Paper packaging is heavier, and as it is made from a biodegradable product, it can produce greenhouse gases when in landfill, unlike plastic, which is chemically inert.

Mr. Illsley: I have a figure somewhere showing that given the amount of moisture in cucumbers, they can in fact benefit from being packaged. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about plastic bags, which I know a little bit about, when the tax on plastic carrier bags was imposed in Ireland, the demand for other types of plastic bag increased. The plastic manufacturers therefore produced more product, but not in the form of carrier bags. Instead, they produced black bin liners, which people used as a way of circumventing the loss of carrier bags

Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman reinforces my point. For the moment, I shall have to remain agnostic on the cucumber issue, about which I am genuinely uncertain. Other Members might be able to enlighten me.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the initiative of the British Retail Consortium to cut the environmental impact of plastic bags by 25 per cent. by the end of 2008, which is only 18 months
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away? We have a long way to go on the issue, but that is a jolly good start on which we can build. The industry is addressing the situation. Our constituents choose to use plastic bags. That is a lifestyle choice now, so let us make sure that plastic bags are used and disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.

Dr. Pugh: The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the gripes about plastic bags is precisely that they are chemically inert and therefore remain around for a very long time. I remember going to a presentation by the packaging industry a few weeks after I had been on holiday in Anglesey, when I had seen various plastic products in some remote and beautiful parts of the island. I assumed that a refuse collector would not come by soon and that those products might well be there for decades. While there can be certain advantages and pluses, that example shows that environmental objectives can at times be confused and that there can be conflicts among them.

The question is about whether we want less biodegradable packaging, less packaging that contributes to the waste stream—plastic contributes very little to that—or less packaging that contributes to the production of CO2 and greenhouse gases. One could argue that the whole contribution of packaging to global warming is relatively small. Packaging, particularly paper packaging, requires forests to be maintained, and presumably they are beneficial. I suppose that one could argue that plastic reduces biodegradable waste, although of course all packaging lengthens food miles because it enables products that otherwise would not get to us at all to reach us in a stable condition.

Arguably, the contribution of packaging to the waste stream has to be evaluated objectively. I do not know the figures—someone might enlighten me—but that contribution might stand comparison, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central suggested, with the amount of waste generated by people throwing out newspapers, brochures and advertising materials. This week, hon. Members could reflect on how much of what they bin would be called packaging and how much would be called newsprint, brochures or whatever.

However, there are genuinely desirable environmental objectives to be achieved, and that will not happen through a free market and expecting things simply to sort themselves out. The industry will have no particular motive to use recyclable materials unless that is provided externally and retailers will have no motive to avoid over-packaging if it pays. Although from time to time consumers will revolt and try to hand their packaging back to Sainsbury’s, Tesco or wherever, the vast bulk of us simply put up with the packaging and throw it out.

I do not think that environmental objectives will be secured by bouts of environmental virtue, either from us as individuals, or from various corporate enterprises. At the moment, retailers have a number of desirable initiatives on the go, but I wonder whether they will be sustained if certain environmental objectives become less fashionable. I favour—like most in the Chamber, I think—the model of a European directive coupled with a bit of national tuning and implementation. That model is not too bad, given the lack of availability of others. The presence of a stick being brandished prompts a plethora of voluntary agreements in the
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retail and producer sectors. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that to be really successful, we require a mature dialogue with the industry and a recognition that the growth in packaging is locked into other sorts of social changes about which we are more comfortable, such as diversity of supply, prevention of theft and improved food hygiene. We will not row back from such things. Given such mature dialogue, there is no reason to believe that regulation cannot lead to environmentally sustainable packaging, just as it has led to safer packaging. I hope that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central has succeeded in making a substantial contribution to that mature dialogue.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I advise the three remaining speakers to keep their comments brief as I wish to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at half-past 10.

10.5 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who spoke wisely—I agreed with much of what he said—and it is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). He has championed the packaging industry extremely well in the House for a number of years. He made several excellent points, but we need a little more focus on, and understanding of, one issue: the contribution that packaging makes to climate change, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Southport.

Does packaging accelerate climate change, or can intelligent packaging make a contribution towards reducing the carbon footprint and helping to control climate change? I believe that it can; intelligent packaging design keeps food and other products in good condition and delivers them in a safe condition, thus reducing the wastage of food and the need to produce it, fertilise it when it is growing, transport it to the user and dispose of what the user wastes.

Mr. Illsley: I should say briefly to the hon. Gentleman that the global carbon footprint of packaging, including its disposal, is 0.2 per cent. of the total.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but if the figure were minus 0.2 per cent.—if good packaging actually reduced the carbon footprint—that would be excellent. I think that it can achieve that, as the industry grows more mature and design gets more intelligent. The hon. Gentleman told us that about 40 per cent. of food in India is wasted, yet in this country, only a few per cent. is.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): According to the figures that I have read, we throw away 30 per cent. of the food that we buy. Does that not make the hon. Gentleman wonder about the effect of packaging? If we did not package food, would we have a more immediate sense of which food was about to go off and thus perhaps not need as much food as we buy at the moment?

Bob Spink: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, and clearly we need a lot more research on, and understanding of, the issue. However, she is going further down the supply chain than the hon. Member
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for Barnsley, Central and I. In some countries, up to half the food is wasted between production and the point of sale; in this country the percentage is very small because we have sensible packaging practices that get better by the day. Good packaging can also promote and enable good recycling practices, which are essential. All that can help to reduce the carbon footprint and the energy required to deliver food through the supply chain to our houses.

I want to make one further point, which has not been raised—perhaps it is slightly out of order, but I hope not. In a marketing sense, suppliers promote their goods phenomenally well in this country. However, they forget the customer after they have sold them—they leave us high and dry. Partially sighted or elderly people, such as me and the hon. Gentleman, who remember the late 50s, cannot read instructions on what to do with the products when we get them home. That is absolutely atrocious for someone who is living alone and cooking for himself. The problem is serious, so we need to ensure that instructions on packaging are delivered in a way that is friendly to elderly people and the partially sighted. The hon. Gentleman made all the points that I would have liked to make and put forward his case extremely well, so I shall sit down and let others speak.

10.10 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I welcome the debate and hope that it will be one of a series of many on the issue. We need to have such debates. I appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) to introduce balance, and I hope that I will be able to do that.

The packaging manufacturing industry is an important part of the UK manufacturing industry. In my constituency, SCA Packaging provides 150 jobs and clearly makes a big contribution to the local economy. I accept that many parts of the industry are making great progress towards reducing packaging. As has been mentioned, it is in no manufacturer’s economic interest to make packaging with more materials than they need.

I caution against the view that the issue is not important because packaging makes up only 3 per cent. of landfill, which might be less than the food waste that we throw away. It is still an important problem, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to early-day motion 814, which is tabled in my name and has now been signed by 168 Members. There is clearly a feeling that the problem needs to be addressed.

Consumers at least have some choice about whether to waste food and throw it in the bin, and about whether to buy enough food or whether it will go to waste. The problem with some of the packaging that our products come in today is that consumers are frustrated that they do not necessarily have a choice. They end up with packaging that they do not need, and in many cases they cannot even recycle it.

That has been a particular issue in areas that have moved to fortnightly collections of landfill waste, which has happened up and down the country and in my area. At that point, consumers started to worry
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about what was going into their bins. That was when people started to complain to me. They could see what they could put in their recycling bins and they were frustrated that a lot of the things that they bought in the supermarket were bulking up the things that they could put in their landfill bin, which had to last for two weeks rather than one. That was one factor that heightened the salience of the issue in the minds of our constituents, who had to deal with that impact.

Of course, it makes good economic sense to minimise packaging. A huge amount of progress has been made by manufacturers, particularly on making products more lightweight. Part of the problem lies not necessarily with the manufacturers of the packaging, but with the brands and the producers of the products, who let the marketing men and women and advertisers into the decisions about how things are packaged. I speak as a former marketing manager, although as I marketed a radio station there thankfully was not such an issue about packaging. That is one of the major problems.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned toothpaste; we would not want just to have one brand of toothpaste, and packaging is obviously one way in which brands can differentiate themselves on the supermarket shelves. That is true, but as someone who used to work in marketing I might suggest that the way in which brands might want to differentiate themselves would be through the strength and quality of the product, rather than what it came in. We have had the examples of perfume bottles and so on, which add a huge amount of apparent value to a product. However, I would have thought that the consumer would be interested in whether the product works.

Dr. Pugh: I hate to play devil’s advocate, but the possible counter-argument would be to say that packaging allows manufacturers to state the merits of their product on the packaging rather than inviting customers to try each one individually.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not argue for a second that we should have no packaging and should go back to taking products in one big bag without any protective coatings or boxes. However, I recall the days when one could take back to the Body Shop the bottle that formerly held a favourite body lotion or shampoo and get it refilled. It is a shame that that seems to have gone by the bye, because although we try to recycle, we need to remember the waste hierarchy—reusing is the best thing that we can do with packaging.

Work still has to be done on marketing. I suggest that the Government play some role, because if products benefit by being in bigger and apparently better packages than those around them there will be an economic incentive to have more packaging. If a level playing field is created through Government regulation—optimal packaging requirements are being considered as part of the waste strategy—companies can act in an environmentally responsible way and will not be penalised by the fact that their competitors would be less likely to do so.

Consumers want minimal and green packaging. A recent survey by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment—INCPEN—said that 66 per
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cent. of people thought that, overall, products are overpackaged, with too many layers of packaging, or packaging that is too large for the goods inside. In April, the Institute of Grocery Distribution found that 19 per cent. of shoppers said that they specifically purchased products with recyclable packaging. That is starting to be a driver through the marketplace, and it will obviously grow.

Let me pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The packaging industry should see this as an opportunity, and if the Government can provide support through research and development to enable companies to innovate, there is no reason why it should not be seen as good for the industry to become a market leader for the rest of the world in new, innovative ideas for environmentally friendly, minimal packaging, which will obviously provide economic opportunities. The packaging industry should embrace that idea, and parts of it are doing so, but we need to ensure that the Government support is there. Although it might always be economically sensible to produce minimal packaging, the risk involved in innovating new, environmentally friendly packaging means that there might not be an economic case up front. Something might need to be developed and researched first, so that support would be needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made a point about waste and shrink-wrapped cucumbers and turnips—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised it as well—and whether that is better. I am unsure whether I am agnostic on the issue, and I have no definitive answer. However, although packaging such goods can prolong their shelf life, pre-packaged goods can mean that we buy more of something than we need, which is why 30 per cent. of the food that we buy is thrown away. It is hard to justify such a huge waste of resources. There are two sides to the argument, and I shall leave hon. Members to their thoughts on that matter.

I mentioned SCA Packaging, which employs 150 people in my constituency. It manufactures corrugated cardboard packaging, primarily for the whisky industry—whisky is obviously one of Scotland’s great exports. That company is a good example of how companies can work in an environmentally friendly way, as 75 per cent. of its cardboard is made from recycled material, and 100 per cent. of its internal card waste is recycled, as it has an onsite paper mill to recycle it.

The cardboard industry is starting to get things right, as 84 per cent. of the corrugated board used was recycled in 2005. In order to raise that figure, we need consumers to recycle cardboard more. Although the industry can be good at recycling the packaging that is used in transit, which is the majority of packaging—the stuff that the consumers see is a small amount—it is harder to get consumer recycling done, because we are talking about smaller quantities in individual homes. It is obviously important for consumers and for us that we get the rates even higher.

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