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12 Jun 2007 : Column 201WH—continued

It is slightly depressing that in England and Wales only a third of local authorities, or 125 out of 374, collect cardboard on the doorstep, while in Scotland things are a little better, because 37 per cent. of councils, or 12 out of 32, do so. That means that there are huge parts of the country where consumers are not
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easily able to recycle cardboard, which, given its bulk, is not handy to take down to recycling banks, even if they are provided. I can say from personal experience that cardboard recycling on the doorsteps of East Dunbartonshire, which was introduced more than a year ago, made a huge difference to what ended up going in the black landfill bin. Cardboard was taken out of the waste stream. We really ought to put pressure on local authorities and make it easier for them to recycle more cardboard.

The Government have brought forward some interesting developments in the waste strategy published recently and in trying to enforce properly the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003. I am intrigued that they are talking about having more effective enforcement action, but there is not yet a lot of detail about what that will actually mean. One problem is that it is up to trading standards officers to prosecute and enforce the regulations, and they are over-stretched. As we all know, there have been very few prosecutions. It might be time to consider having a national body, such as used to exist, to consider the issue of packaging and make prosecutions when companies flout the regulations.

The debate has been welcome and I hope that it is the first of many. Many parts of the industry are making great progress towards reducing packaging, but there is much more to do and the Government must take a lead in further reducing packaging waste, with tough targets and effective enforcement. Green, minimal packaging makes good economic sense, and it makes sense for manufacturers, consumers and the environment.

10.21 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate and leading it off so ably. It provides a welcome opportunity to rebalance the national debate about packaging, and I congratulate all those who have contributed on their wise words.

I wish to follow the comments of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on my favourite subject this morning, corrugated cardboard. There are a number of packaging firms in my constituency, and I am delighted to be a member of the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry, so ably led by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central. Those firms include Rigid Containers and DS Smith, which has a company called Abbey Board based in Burton Latimer. There are others as well.

The figures given by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on the proportion of corrugated cardboard that is recycled were absolutely spot-on. An interesting statistic is that as a result of that recycling rate, an area of corrugated cardboard the size of Greater London avoids going to landfill every four months. That is the scale of the recycling contribution made by this wonderful product. If we stop and think about corrugated cardboard for a while, we find that it is wonderful. From cardboard can be made rigid containers that protect their contents, and when the box is no longer required it can be recycled. There cannot really be a greener and more environmentally friendly product than corrugated cardboard.

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DS Smith, which has a firm called Abbey Board in Burton Latimer, specialises in clay-coated, pre-print, barrier and performance liners on both single and double-faced corrugated materials. I looked up its environmental statement this morning, and it is extremely impressive on its corporate social responsibility. As a firm it uses waste or recycled material in any given process whenever it can, and it makes environmental performance an integral part of its business. It also seeks to minimise the use of energy and natural resources in its manufacturing process and always tries to ensure that packaging products are designed to minimise total waste and the use of energy throughout the supply chain.

Rigid Containers, which is based in Desborough, is 100 years old this year. It was founded by a war hero, Colonel Howard Burditt, in 1907, and stems from Northamptonshire’s history as a shoe manufacturing location, because shoes go into boxes. Colonel Burditt developed the process of corrugated cardboard, and 100 years later, I am pleased to report, unlike some other parts of the packaging industry, Rigid Containers is doing extremely well. In 2005 the third phase of its recent investment programme was completed with the opening of a warehouse and logistics facility at Desborough, which added storage capacity of 8,000 pallets to its existing 6,000-pallet capacity.

It is easy to bash the packaging industry, but in corrugated cardboard there is an extremely green product that does what it says on the tin, if you like. It is a rigid container that protects the contents of a box, and hundreds of people are employed in my constituency in making that environmentally friendly packaging. I welcome the opportunity presented by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, to highlight the good that the packaging industry does.

I wish to echo the words of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire about the recycling of cardboard by local residents. In Kettering borough, which has one of the best household recycling rates in the whole country—it has increased from 4 per cent. in 2003 to 46 per cent. and climbing today—cardboard goes in the green bin and is therefore sent off for composting. A point that the packaging industry would like to make is that it would be far better if the Government, through their guidance and funding mechanisms, could encourage local authorities to collect cardboard separately rather than include it in composting. Recycling cardboard to make new cardboard is the most environmentally friendly thing to do. If cardboard is added to general green waste and composted, fibres are lost to the cardboard industry. It would be worth the Minister’s addressing that point in her conversations with her colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

10.26 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), on highlighting this important subject and trying to redress the balance. Some of the press that we see, as he
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said, almost implies that members of the packaging industry act against the interests of people in our society.

The manufacturing industry is an industry just like any other, and should not be demonised. Its job, like that of any other industry, is to respond to market demands. The job of manufacturers and food producers is to sell their products and maximise profit, and packaging is an important aspect in making a product attractive to the consumer, but it does need effective regulation. Will the Minister address some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003? Loopholes in the regulations allow excess waste if there is, as the guidance notes state, “consumer acceptance”, or if it is needed to provide identification or stimulate purchase. I am struggling to think of any other reason why companies would want to produce packaging, except to hold the contents being sold.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central, talked about the reduction in packaging. The natural concomitant of that is that jobs are reduced—it is a simple equation. On the other hand, we as consumers each spend £470 a year on packaging, and Britain has been described as the “dustbin of Europe”. There is a trading scheme called the landfill allowance trading scheme, and I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on some of the loopholes in it. Under the scheme, private sector trade waste can be separately collected by private subcontractors and therefore go off the books. In many areas, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that there is proper regulation and proper measurement of exactly how much waste is going to landfill.

We want packaging to be recycled, and we have a target of 40 per cent. by 2010 and 50 per cent. by 2020. Compared with some of our European neighbours, that is pathetic. Germany already achieves 58 per cent., and the Netherlands already achieves 65 per cent. We must raise our sights considerably to ensure that the packaging that we produce has a recyclable element to it.

Recycling could be regarded as an admission of failure, in that we have acquired more material than we actually need. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the halcyon days of the Body Shop, when one could get the little pots refilled. The optimum strategy for dealing with packaging must be refilling and reusing whenever possible.

Consumer demand drives the industry, and it is encouraging just how much of a move there has been recently in consumer attitudes towards packaging. In my constituency, three little recycling bins to which people could bring their plastic for recycling were introduced for the whole borough. By the end of the first weekend, those little plastic recycling bins were completely covered in plastic materials—people were so keen to do plastic recycling. To its credit, the Conservative-run council has responded by ensuring that we now have sufficient capacity in the three areas, but the provision is a far cry from the sort of recycling service that is offered by more progressive councils.

Supermarket bags have been mentioned. I was interested and amused to read recently about Sainsbury’s Anya Hindmarch bags, which were made
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of cotton. People were queuing from 2 am to acquire those hugely desirable objects. That just shows that public perceptions and attitudes can shape the manufacturing and packaging industries’ response to demand.

The British Retail Consortium has agreed to a target of up to 25 per cent. for reducing the use of plastic bags, but this country really should be working towards the end of single-use bags. That is contrary to what several hon. Members said this morning, but I see no reason why re-education could not end the need to produce a one-use piece of plastic for taking consumables home.

Mr. Illsley: I am listening to what the hon. Lady is saying, but there is an argument that plastic carrier bags are used several times. People will use them when they go to the supermarket; then they may use them again to go to the supermarket; they may use them for taking gym kit to the gym; and then the bags end up as makeshift bin liners in pedal bins. There is an argument that plastic bags are reused.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for the intervention and I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the vast majority of people will reuse only a small proportion of the bags. If people take home brand-new bags every time they go to the supermarket, the vast majority of the bags will not be reused. Several supermarket initiatives involve charging a small amount for good-quality plastic bags that can be exchanged once their useful life is over. That has proved extremely popular with consumers, and with a little more education we could move in that direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) made an interesting contribution to the debate on the disposal of packaging. His ten-minute Bill was about supermarkets taking back packaging from consumers. He said that responsibility for receiving the packaging should rest with the supermarket. That would certainly direct minds down the supply chain to think about the type and amount of packaging that would be used by the supermarkets.

I should be fair to the supermarkets. They are responding to the challenge of consumer demands to reduce packaging, although one could certainly argue that they could go a great deal further.

Finally, I would like to discuss opportunities for the packaging industry. Every change in consumer demand presents an opportunity to the industry. I would like to mention Re:tie fasteners, the eco-clips that are an award-winning British invention. They could replace conventional closures on many plastic bottles and jars, and they are a fantastic example of British ingenuity in responding to a problem or demand.

Then there is the concept of de-manufacturing, which is breaking down a piece of plastic, or whatever, into its component parts. Esterform Packaging Ltd is a successful, growing company that produces environment-friendly packaging. The hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about the environmental friendliness of simple packaging products such as corrugated cardboard. Many of the solutions that we need are on our doorsteps, literally. If we were able effectively to recycle and reuse them, that clearly would make a big contribution.

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My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke about Government sponsorship for research. When drawing up our science budget, we must consider carefully how we can respond to ecological and customer demands, and how we can maximise our ability to design innovative responses to the requirements. This country is good at innovation. The packaging industry has many challenges, but I am sure that it is up to it.

10.38 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on bringing this major issue to our attention, and on securing an opportunity for us to debate it. He spoke with great passion and, indeed, expertise on the subject. We have yet to hear from the Minister, but I hope that he will agree that there is a good deal of cross-party consensus on the way forward.

The hon. Gentleman takes a measured view. He said that we must have a balanced approach. The world, Britain, our communities and individuals are becoming ever more conscious of environment, climate change and recycling issues, so it is only appropriate that we focus on what packaging can achieve in meeting our objectives. The hon. Gentleman placed in perspective what is, perhaps, the lowest common denominator that we should bear in mind. Packaging is of paramount importance in dealing with problems such as the E. coli scare in Scotland and other places in the world. That must be the benchmark from which we move forward. We need a safe and secure means of transporting our products, and at the same time, we need to be able to market them.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) talked about excessive packaging and I agree with the points he made. I recently purchased a spirit level from B&Q and it took some time to get into the packaging. I eventually tore it apart with such vigour that I ended up breaking the spirit level because there was something at the back that I was unaware of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned intelligent packaging and I endorse his sentiments. There are clever ways in which we can reduce the amount of bulky packaging that we see now, and I hope that the industry will listen to ideas about how goods can be better packaged not only for transport to the market, but for display.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke about landfill. It was interesting to hear that the carbon footprint from packaging is declining, which places the issue in perspective. However, we must be conscious of what we are doing to our environment. Last year, the National Audit Office concluded that the

We, as households, are producing more waste and packaging is part of that.

Packaging is an essential part of modern life and I do not wish to demonise the industry in any way. It plays a valuable part in the economy, employing 850,000 people. Clearly, packaging not only protects
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goods, but maintains the condition of foodstuffs for much longer. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said in his opening remarks, as consumers, our demands have changed during the past 50 years and we now ask for more convenience. However, examples of excessive packaging have been mentioned today, including oranges in plastic boxes, courgettes in plastic trays, and shrink-wrapped coconuts. The hon. Gentleman referred to abuses where financial gain is made through packaging—for example, six pieces of fruit in a polystyrene tray being sold for more than if someone plucked the individual pieces off the shelf. That should not be happening and it is appropriate that we highlight our concerns about that.

Some stores are heading in the right direction and we support the use of recycled bags, bag-for-life schemes, packaging take-back initiatives and biodegradable packaging. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) is clearly an expert on corrugated boxes and I was pleased that he added his thoughts to the debate; we can learn an awful lot from him. By using more corrugated boxes that can be recycled we can link the emphasis on recycling with the issue of packaging.

However, we need to go further. Concerns were raised about using the bag-for-life for bottles and other items that need to be packaged. We should change the bag-for-life so that it is compartmentalised and has different places to put different products. In that way it would itself become a package to protect goods. Those are the types of initiatives that we need to encourage as we move the debate forward. Education, not regulation, is important. I would hate to see the industry forced to go down a particular road. I would prefer it to engage in the issue and consider where the market wants to go. Consumers are certainly becoming more aware of the matter and are demanding less and better packaging.

To place the issue in context, we create about 4.6 million tonnes of packaging waste every year, which equates to 6,000 London buses. I am not sure if that figure relates to the old Routemaster or to the bendy bus, but either way that is a significant amount and a significant hole in the ground is required to accommodate it. The hon. Gentleman said that the carbon footprint of packaging may be small, but the hole in the ground needed to dispose of packaging is large, which must be of concern to all of us. To put the issue in perspective, for every £50 spent on food, an additional £8 is spent on packaging, so the average family is spending about £470 a year purely on packaging. It does not end there because people must then get rid of packaging and pay the council to come and take their waste away. That means that people are paying a second time for disposal of the packaging once it has been used.

In conclusion, the public are becoming attuned to the impact that we all have on the environment. The packaging industry must be challenged to play its role and introduce less bulky, more biodegradable, more recyclable and more reusable types of packaging. I hope that the industry will heed those views to avoid the necessity for any new regulation.

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10.45 am

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): I am delighted, Mrs. Humble, to speak in a debate that you are chairing. I welcome the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and congratulate him on his speech—it is the first time that I have sat opposite him when he has spoken from the Front Bench.

Most importantly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate. I have worked with him before on the issue of packaging and I know that he puts a lot of effort into supporting the packaging industry by raising issues of concern in the House. I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to put on the record a properly balanced debate. Given the image of the industry, as demonstrated by the latest campaign by The Independent, I would be interested to know whether those who have tabled the early-day motion supported the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend. In initiating the debate, he has succeeded in getting the balance right between promoting an important industry, which has a crucial role to play in our economy, and ensuring that the industry moves with the times and deals with questions such as whether packaging is excessive and what is essential packaging.

A number of hon. Members made good points about how packaging can help sustainability. For example, food loss is minimised, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). We know that the industry is attempting to minimise the impact of packaging on the environment, and I will come back to that point. Much very good innovative work has been done throughout the industry and in collaboration with higher education institutions. The industry has also taken advantage of resources that the Government have set aside for innovation and research. As a number of hon. Members have said, we need to do more of that.

I listened with interest to the comments on packaging and marketing. At best it is a bit naïve to assume that, in our consumerist society, we can reduce the importance of packaging as a marketing tool, whether for Easter eggs or any other product. As we become increasingly wealthier, we become what some people describe as apex consumers and we seek to discriminate between products that are the same. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that packaging is a key part of marketing.

Jo Swinson: Does the Minister not think that the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 were an attempt to do exactly that: reduce the excessive packaging that might be introduced through branding and the use of packaging in extreme ways as a marketing tool? The regulations mean that packaging has to be reduced to the essentials of protecting products and ensuring that they reach their destination in a safe and hygienic condition.

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