Environment Bill passes second reading despite MPs' concerns

The government’s Environment Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday (26 February), despite MPs raising concerns over the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the practicalities of England’s deposit return scheme (DRS) and the omission of sachets from single-use plastic legislation.

Environment Secretary George Eustice
Environment Secretary George Eustice

The Bill, which was reintroduced to Parliament in January after previously falling ahead of December’s general election, includes commitments to ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries, enshrine environmental principles in law and establish an independent OEP to scrutinise government policy.

Whilst newly-appointed Environment Secretary George Eustice described the Bill as “key to this government’s ambitious environmental agenda”, MPs criticised the absence of specific targets, with Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East and member of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), describing the lack of urgency as “deeply worrying”.

“A toothless environmental watchdog”

In particular, the Bill’s second reading saw several MPs raise concerns with the independence of the OEP, with Anna McMorrin, Labour MP for Cardiff North, questioning: “Where is its independence in holding governments to account and what consequences will there be when the government fails to meet targets? It will be a toothless regulator with fewer powers than the European Commission.”

Luke Pollard, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said: “The new regulator does not have true independence from the government. It has no legal powers to hold the government to account in the way it needs to. Approving its chair via a government-led select committee, on which the government has a majority, is not sufficient. ”

Scepticism over the OEP’s independence had been raised previously – prior to the general election, MPs from the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) called for the government to improve the links between the OEP and Parliament, although these recommendations have not been taken up.

Single-use plastics

Whilst the Environment Bill has proposed powers to introduce charges on a range of single-use items, campaigners have criticised the lack of action on plastic sachets, with A Plastic Planet launching the ‘Sack The Sachet’ campaign to call on the government to include sachets in the crackdown on plastic.

A Plastic Planet Co-Founder Sian Sutherland commented: “In recent years governments and business have gone all out to enforce a ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and even bags.

“And yet the plastic sachet, the ultimate symbol of our grab and go, convenience-addicted lifestyle, has been virtually invisible to all. The result? Our earth is saturated with these uncollectable, unrecyclable, contaminated, valueless little packets. It’s time to close the legal loophole. Now more than ever before we have to Sack The Sachet.”

Speaking in the debate, Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, reiterated A Plastic Planet’s concerns: “Globally, 855 billion sachets are thrown away every year—enough to wrap the entire surface of the globe in plastic. Replacement materials are available for most sachet packaging that render the use of plastics in sachets completely unnecessary. So I ask the government to amend the Bill to include provisions under the banner, ‘Sack the Sachet’, to eliminate this harmful and unnecessary form of plastic pollution.”

With the Bill’s single-use legislation limited to plastics, concerns have been raised over the substitution of plastic for other unnecessary products – a recent report from think tank Green Alliance warned that switching to alternative materials, for example paper bags, can still have harmful environmental consequences.

Deposit return

In addition to charges on single-use items, the Environment Bill is also set to introduce powers for a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, although the government has not yet confirmed how the system will operate.

Commenting on the practicalities of the DRS, Mark Pawsey, Conservative MP for Rugby, said: “As somebody who spent 30 years in the packaging industry and as chair of the all-party Parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry, I recognise public concerns about litter and where plastic waste ends up.

“A DRS must consider a number of items. It must have clear objectives and it must increase the quality and quantity of the material collected.

“We need to consider the number of return points and whether there will be one at all sales points. Will cafes and restaurants be included? Will the scheme provide an exemption for small retailers that lack the space to install a reverse vending machine?”

As Scotland forges ahead with its own DRS, set to be enforced from April 2021, MPs questioned the consistency of the two schemes – Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for the Environment and Climate Change and MP for Bath, said: “I am concerned that as Scotland is introducing its own deposit return scheme two years earlier, Defra’s scheme for England and Wales might not be compatible.”

Hobhouse also called for improved traceability, proposing an amendment on the obligation of councils to disclose the end destination of waste, while David Linden, SNP MP for Glasgow East, called for an amendment to take action on nappy disposal.

The Environment Bill will now pass to the committee stage of its passage through Parliament, where it will undergo further scrutiny. A date has yet to be set for this stage.

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