Alex Sobel: Revolution begins at the local takeaway

THE plastic bottles and coffee cups inquiry was my first large-scale inquiry as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. We have influenced the House of Commons and soon, I hope, we will influence Government policy.

Should everyone take personal responsibility to reduce their plastic use?

Sometimes, sitting in a committee listening to evidence, something quietly dawns on you, and this happened to me when we heard from the #OneLess campaign.

I asked its project manager, Fiona Llewellyn: “Do you think that there is scope to look at the licences of take-aways and fast food places so they have to provide access to tap water, because that’s the area where you see a lot of littering and food on the go?”

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She replied: “One of the reasons we have plastic packaged water is that it is convenient to have on the go, so if we can overcome some of the barriers to convenience for refilling that would be a wonderful step in the right direction to this wider problem of plastic pollution and what you suggest would be very welcome.”

That is a type of planning law that we could implement immediately to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles.

The inquiry heard a whole load of evidence. The major measure identified was the deposit return scheme. MPs ​might think that all manufacturers are opposed to the deposit return scheme because it is a cost to their business,
but many major companies are supportive. That includes Coca-Cola, which I believe is the world’s largest drinks company.

The company set out its support for the scheme in its evidence to the committee. It actually had a number of recommendations for us, including that we should just have a single scheme, that the scheme should be managed by a not-for-profit organisation and, most amazingly, that the costs should be covered by producers and retailers.

That has not come from the committee, a lobby group or even the Government; that is from one of the world’s largest companies and largest producers of plastic bottles. We should listen to Coca-Cola, which we might 
have expected to be on the other side of the debate.

During the inquiry, China announced that it would no longer accept plastic waste imports, so we had a separate session on Chinese plastic waste. The Chinese waste ban raises questions such as where will all these plastic bottles go? We do not have the reprocessing capacity. We also looked at packaging recovery notes, concentrating on packaging
export recovery notes. These are the licences needed to export plastic waste abroad.

Clearly we are not having any for China because of the waste ban, but with PERNs to export waste, for example, to Vietnam, it is difficult to get a clear audit trail showing what happens to the plastic. 
We had evidence from Zero Waste Vietnam, which asked: “Why can’t European countries recycle their own plastic materials? Why are we having
to have to have shiploads of plastic materials that we are not able to 
recycle?”

I feel a lot of personal responsibility in this area. I recently visited I Am Döner, my local kebab shop in Headingley, 
where I ordered my normal falafel wrap. Its staff told me that they have gone completely plastic-free. They provide water in cans and all their packaging is non-plastic. That shop is an exemplar to us all.

I thank Paul at I Am Döner for introducing those measures. He has inspired me to have a week in which I do not buy any single-use plastic, so I will be bombarding MPs and Ministers from my social media accounts regarding my difficulties in avoiding any single-use plastics.

I hope that the Administration Committee can hurry up with implementing its proposals so that I can eat here at Parliament without having to use any single-use plastic. We all need to make a personal commitment, as well as pressing for change from the Government.

Alex Sobel is the Labour MP for Leeds North West. He spoke in a Commons debate on plastic bottles – this is an edited version.