A “fundamental shift” away from all single-use packaging – not just plastic but other materials too – is needed to help the environment, MPs have urged.
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 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said.
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.
A report from the committee warned that, 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.
But 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.
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.
They also urged Parliament to lead by example, with the ambition to remove single-use packaging from all its catering facilities.
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 backed these moves, and also called for the proposed plastic packaging tax – which will tax packaging with less than 30% recycled content – to have lower fees for higher levels of recycled material.
Neil Parish, the committee chairman, 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.”
He added: “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.”
A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: “Manufacturers need to up their game now and respond to the public’s call to action by using packaging that is fully and easily recyclable, and pay the full cost of recycling packaging.
“Councils are doing all they can to improve recycling rates, but further improvement on current levels needs significant extra funding so councils can cover new materials proposed in the Government’s waste strategy.
“Councils should be free to decide how to deliver their waste services locally, as various factors determine waste collection methods, such as property type and rurality.”
A government spokesperson said its waste strategy would ensure businesses and manufacturers “pay the full net cost” of handling packaging that ends up in household waste.
“Our reforms will also mean producers will need to label their packaging as ‘recyclable’ or ‘not recyclable’ so households can know more clearly what they can recycle.”
Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.