Previous Section Index Home Page

It seems that there is some confusion about the Courtauld commitment, which I hope we can get to the bottom of, particularly because packaging growth is supposed to be halted this year. We ought to know where we are and who is monitoring it. What will happen if the targets are not met? Will there be naming and shaming, and will that be an effective sanction? Will the Government consider legally binding targets if the voluntary approach does not work?

The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 are another bugbear of mine. They do not work, because they allow any producer to have as much packaging as they like, as long as they can prove that it is acceptable to the consumer. Basically, if they can sell more products, it is all right.

I declare an interest, in that I was a marketing manager before I was elected to Parliament. Any marketer knows that the greater the amount of shelf space in a shop, the more products get sold. The incentive is to increase packaging, and there is no effective way to enforce the regulations.

24 Apr 2008 : Column 1501

Philip Davies: The hon. Lady is right, and she knows that I used to work in marketing for a supermarket before I entered Parliament. Does she accept that the onus is on the customer to shun products with lots of packaging and to buy the ones with minimal packaging? If that happened, supermarkets and food manufacturers would reduce the amount of packaging provided. We do not need Government regulation, as it is all in the hands of the consumer.

Jo Swinson: That is the argument for enlightened consumerism, and we should encourage people to do what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I want a level playing field for producers. Enlightened companies that take their environmental responsibilities seriously should not be penalised, with lower sales of their products caused by the fact that they are given less space or prominence. Regulations to which all companies must sign up would resolve the problem in a different way, while remaining perfectly acceptable from a market point of view.

At a Select Committee sitting in December, I questioned the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the regulations. He said that the EU’s Directorate General on the Environment was looking at the matter again and undertaking a study, but I have not got very far with finding out more. I wrote to the DG Environment in January, but so far I have received no answer. I also wrote to the right hon. Gentleman in March to see whether he could assist in soliciting a response. I understand that the task was transferred to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and that an answer is sitting on the relevant Minister’s desk there. I hope that the Minister attending this debate will help me to get the answers that I need, and to find out whether the regulations will be reviewed.

Last year, I conducted a survey of 200 trading standards officers. The ineffectiveness of the packaging regulations means that there have been very few prosecutions, and public awareness of them is low. I hope that the Government will consider raising people’s awareness of the fact that trading standards officers can deal with packaging problems, but we cannot expect wonderful results as long as policing packaging is not a priority for them.

Andrew George: Does my hon. Friend agree that supermarkets tend to insist on suppliers using packaging that is often much more expensive than could be achieved otherwise? The supermarkets are involved in driving up the costs of packaging and the extent to which it is used.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that we will hear more from him about that later. The Local Government Association carried out an interesting study last year and found that markets used the least packaging whereas supermarkets used the most.

I am intrigued by the sudden interest in plastic bags expressed by the Prime Minister and the Government. I suspect that it may be driven in part by the media agenda and a certain campaign in the Daily Mail. Although it is important to cut the number of disposable plastic bags that are used, that is merely a drop in the ocean in the context of the wider debate
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1502
about packaging. The effort may be visible, but it is not of the greatest importance in the overall campaign. The Minister knows that the evidence is mixed as to whether taxes reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and about whether there are negative effects of increased other bag use. I welcome the fact that the charge being considered will take into account what bags are made from. That is an important factor, as heavier bags lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions, but I still think that a voluntary approach is best.

In conclusion, consumers pay through the nose for excessive packaging, at the check-out and in their council tax bills—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that that is the conclusion of the hon. Lady’s time. I call Mr. Eric Illsley.

1.43 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), as the final minute of her speech—on plastic bags—was quite interesting. I agree with the point that she would have gone on to make.

All of the various issues such as packaging and plastic bags that have been raised in the past hour or so are worthy of a full day’s debate. The Order Paper shows that the London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill will be debated at some date in the future, but many other environmental matters deserve to be debated too. It is therefore a shame that we have only 90 minutes for this important debate, and that attendance in the Chamber is not better.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggested that supermarkets would respond if people were to ask for products that had less packaging or which presented some other environmentally friendly quality, but I am sceptical about that. I believe that supermarkets supply the products that we buy, and that consumer choice ends there.

My hon. Friend the Minister opened the debate by outlining some of the environmental issues at stake. I agree with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire that we must be careful not to react to public opinion by introducing measures that science tells us are wrong. For instance, incandescent light bulbs are to be banned in favour of so-called low-energy bulbs, but people need to understand what such a bulb’s power factor means. I shall try to explain.

A low-energy bulb with a power factor of 1 demands as much power from the generating station as does a conventional bulb. Technically, therefore, a light bulb is not low energy unless it has a power factor of 0.9 or less. Most low-energy light bulbs on sale in this country have a power factor of about 3, which means that they use three times as much power as an ordinary bulb. Consumers need to know that information if they are to make the right choice, but it is not widely available. That problem is one that the Institute of Lighting Engineers is trying to highlight, and we should bear it in mind.

We had a good debate in Westminster Hall last year on packaging. The hon. Lady set out her thoughts on the essential requirements, and the arguments have
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1503
been well rehearsed. We all want to reduce the amount of packaging used, but no one can say how much is excessive. Some packaging is needed to present information about the product inside. For example, people with a peanut allergy can make use of the traffic light system to find out about ingredients, and consumers are now asking for packaging to contain information about the obesity risks of a product, or its salt or fat content.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman asks what constitutes excessive packaging, but does he think that consumers should decide? Should not large retailers install places near the exit where people can dispose of packaging that they consider excessive? That would expose some of the culprits and even change retailer behaviour.

Mr. Illsley: Such a system already exists in Germany, where people leaving a supermarket can leave the packaging behind. In fairness, it should be said that supermarkets here are looking at that model as a way of alleviating the problem.

Philip Davies indicated assent.

Mr. Illsley: I take the hon. Gentleman’s agreement as confirmation that supermarkets are considering that approach. I should be happy to let consumers decide on all such matters, as long as they have all the information needed to make a proper judgment. Clearly, though, they do not have all the information on things like low-energy light bulbs. I am sure that the same is true for plastic bags, about which I shall speak in a moment.

Packaging is needed for reasons of hygiene. People ask why coconuts are wrapped in clingfilm, given that they have a hard shell. However, the shell is covered in fibres that can break off and get in other food products, with the result that people might choke. Some products need to wrapped for safety, others to facilitate their transport. For instance, why is a tube of toothpaste put in a cardboard box? The answer is simple: it is easier to stack the boxes than the tubes.

The main reason for the packing that we see in all our shops is that the consumer demands it because it is convenient. Consumers like to shop once a fortnight or once a week at their local supermarket or local hypermarket, and they simply want convenience. That is why a lot of our packaging is the way that it is.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks with both knowledge and commitment on these subjects, but I hope that he will not become an apologist for unnecessary packaging. When my young children have their toys, which I am obliged to buy for them very regularly, they come packaged in paper, metal, plastic, wood and every other kind of thing that one can imagine. When we bought toys or when they were bought for us as children, they came very simply packaged. I am not sure this is about information; it is about unnecessary packaging. One could use many other examples of the way that packaging is, frankly, out of control. Surely the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

24 Apr 2008 : Column 1504

Mr. Illsley: To a certain extent, I would, but I do not think for a minute that packaging is out of control. Packaging manufacturers do not make packaging for the fun of it. They do not spend money unnecessarily. They want to get away with the least amount of packaging around a product that they can, because obviously the more materials they use, the more money it costs them. They have a vested interest in reducing packaging as well.

The hon. Gentleman gives a good example: toys. I believe that it is accepted that toys are perhaps excessively packaged, but most toys sold in this country come from China. Another classic example, of course, is the Easter egg. The egg is about 4 in long and the packet is 2 ft wide.

Mr. Hayes: Has not the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head? This is not about information or safety; it is about marketing and about people making something that is very modest look very grand. That is why toys are dressed up in the way that they are, and it is why Easter eggs are packaged in expansive and rather grand boxes. So he is making my argument for me, is he not?

Mr. Illsley: No, I do not think so. I shall go back to the beginning and start with packaging, information, hygiene and so on. The hon. Members for Shipley and for East Dunbartonshire can speak about marketing far better than I can—I have no experience in it. Some excess packaging is the result of marketing, but some packaging is essential. The glaring example is perfume. Quite often, more money is invested in the packaging and the bottle that the perfume comes in than in its contents. Another example is an alcoholic drink called Malibu—not that I drink it, but I have seen the bottles made in my constituency. Anyone who has seen a bottle of Malibu knows that it is a glass bottle, which is painted white. Orange and brown are then painted on to the white paint by an electro-magnetic process—positive and negative charges cause the paint to fly on to the bottle. Given the technology involved in making those bottles, they cost about 30p each. That is about twice as much as the value of the pint of alcoholic drink that goes into the bottle.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and a lot of pertinent points that are often not made. He mentioned hygiene, but I am not sure whether he mentioned another factor: keeping products fresh. For example, packaged cucumbers keep fresh for longer. Does he agree that, given that we want to cut down on food waste as well, such packaging is a good thing, not a bad thing?

Mr. Illsley: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, which I did not mention. I am glad that he has raised it, because it is valid. A lot of consumers complain about seeing vegetables, particularly salad vegetables, wrapped in a thin layer of cling film and suggest that that is excessive packaging. Last year, there was a demonstration in the House by Marks and Spencer, which brought in two items of vegetables, both bought in the same shop on the same day. One of them was immediately wrapped in cling film; the other was not. They were brought into the House for a meeting, where hon. Members could see them, and it was obvious that the one without the cling film was deteriorating far more rapidly that the other one.

24 Apr 2008 : Column 1505

As the hon. Gentleman points out, there is a need for packaging, and it comes down to convenience and freshness. People shop in supermarkets for convenience weekly or fortnightly, or whatever. They want that food to last longer, so that they do have to go to the shop, as people used to do, every day or every other day and so on. I am speaking in defence of the industry; I am chairman of the all-party packaging group, so I would, wouldn’t I? I want to get across the point about balance. The industry is co-operating with the Government, through the Courtauld agreement and so on, to try to address these issues, and it wants to do so. However, the issue can become sensationalised.

Last year, we saw the campaign in The Independent newspaper that highlighted four issues over four days. The Daily Mail did the same thing. We experience the sensationalism of news reporters taking a shop load of stuff from a supermarket and depositing it on the counter to make a point. The danger is that the problem will be exaggerated out of all proportion. We need some balance and further debate to consider what is excess packaging and what we can reduce and lightweight.

Lightweighting is an important point. My constituency contains one of the largest glass manufacturers in western Europe. It manufactures a very popular beer bottle, and it has just taken 1.5 g out of that third of a pint beer bottle. As a result, the cost saving to the industry is remarkable and the amount of glass used in that product is reduced. That is a huge success, but the number of bottles that are broken when they are transported from the factory to the brewery has increased dramatically because the structure of bottle is not as solid; it has been lightweighted. We must be careful that we do not damage products in seeking to lightweight them. The hon. Gentleman also made the point that food waste is the biggest problem that we face in waste disposal at the moment. As the Minister said, we waste a third of all our food. That is an absolute disgrace, and we should address it before we even think about looking at plastic bags, packing waste and so on.

On food waste and recycling, the Minister pointed out that she has increased the target for the recycling of packing waste and other materials. Again, I make the plea that the quality of recycled material in this country is not good enough to be used in certain industries as recyclate. The glass industry is a classic example. The glass is mixed with other products—often paper and other materials that can be recycled—and is so badly contaminated that it is unusable. Local authorities have no real restrictions placed on them or proper targets for separating collected material and delivering it to recyclers in such a way that it can be reused. In fact, most local authorities have a different collection system from the collection authority next door. Some authorities collect some materials; others do not collect that material. We have got a mix and match, and local authorities are required to collect by weight. They simply have to collect and recycle a certain weight of material, not specifically separated materials.

Jo Swinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the plethora of ways in which local authorities organise their recycling causes great confusion with consumers?
24 Apr 2008 : Column 1506
Different areas a few miles apart have completely different systems. In my area, we have waste separation at the kerbside, but constituents are concerned and say, “But in Glasgow, it all just goes in one big bin. Why can’t we have that?” It is difficult to get such issues across. People assume that their recycling is being used again in this country. Perhaps having more guidance on the best schemes that local authorities could use would be help in getting a common scheme across more local authorities.

Mr. Illsley: The hon. Lady is exactly right. I entirely agree with her. Some of the material collected does not get used in this country. Plastic bags are an example. We collect the plastic and ship it over to China, because it can use it and we cannot. We have nowhere that can recycle the plastic from plastic bags, so it goes abroad. Plastic bags make up about 0.05 per cent. of the landfill waste—a miniscule amount. The plastic is recyclable, but we cannot recycle it, because no one in this country can do it.

On plastic bags, my hon. Friend the Minister made a point about the voluntary agreement not working. She said that she wanted to reduce the number of plastic bags. Under the voluntary agreement, the number of plastic bags in use has fallen by 7 per cent.; that is against a target of 25 per cent. However, the amount of plastic being used has been reduced by 14 per cent. against that 25 per cent. target. We have to determine what the target is. Is it for a reduction in the number of bags, or a reduction in the amount of plastic that we use?

Ireland tried putting a levy on plastic bags. One briefing said:

The chief executive of the Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme said:

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the voluntary agreement to which I referred

It added that in Ireland, people just bought more bin liners to replace free carrier bags, so the volume of waste stayed the same. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth said:

Next Section Index Home Page