Statement by the Minister for Environment: Extended Producer Responsibility
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Minister for today’s statement. I think we all accept here that there is a big problem of plastic entering the sea, which volunteers who clean up our beaches have been aware of for some time. And now it’s become a major national talking point, partly because of the TV programme that you mentioned: The Blue Planet TV series, which demonstrates that, even in today’s multi-channel era, a TV programme can still have a major effect in raising public consciousness, although I also appreciate what you state that the Welsh Government had already commissioned your report prior to the TV programme.
The question, as ever, is how best to tackle this problem of plastic. And it’s good that there are some very specific ideas that we are discussing here today. Wales as a refill nation, is a good objective, but, of course, we have to look at the practicalities. One practical suggestion that seems to be arising is that we move towards a greater provision of public drinking fountains. The proposal seems to me a little bit similar to another idea that we’ve sometimes discussed here of keeping open more public toilets, which we were discussing at some length during the public health Bill debates last year. The problem may come down, largely, to cost, because we did used to have more public fountains; we used to have a lot more public toilets, many have fallen into disuse due to the cost of providing them. We know that there is a large ongoing cost to councils of providing these kinds of facilities, so, with the provision of public fountains, would the Welsh Government be providing ongoing funding to councils to help with this kind of service?
A related issue is that fountains would need to be well maintained so that there is a public perception that the fountains are clean and hygienic, otherwise, many people simply won’t use them. Now, we could, alternatively, have businesses providing water dispensers in their premises. Again, this is kind of connected to the discussions about public toilets, because we have had schemes where pubs and cafes have been given financial assistance for signing up to have registered public toilets. In other words, allowing people to come in and use the facility even if they aren’t buying any food or drink. So, I wonder if this kind of scheme could also be extended to water dispensers and if that’s the kind of scheme that may be under consideration as you go forward with your plans for the refill nation.
You also mention other aspects, such as food packaging, which is another big issue, and I tend to agree with Simon Thomas, lots of people do talk about this: why do supermarkets put so much packaging around stuff? People don’t really want all of the packaging, it takes time to rip it all off and sometimes you end up cutting your hand open. I have similar problems with sachets as David Melding seems to have.
Now, most towns have something of a waste issue around late-night fast food outlets and the associated discarded containers. Well, if we used Trading Standards rules, we could enforce the use of biodegradable containers, which would be better, so I think the move to biodegradable packaging is a good idea. But one thing I do wonder whether you would take up is wet wipes, because there is recent evidence that some 93 per cent of fatbergs blocking up the sewage system come from wet wipes being flushed down the toilet. A big problem is that many wet wipes are labelled as flushable. Well, they may flush down the toilet, but many do actually block the sewage pipes, so that is misleading the people who buy these products. So, I wonder if we could do something and use Trading Standards to alter the labelling of bogus so-called flushable wet wipes. Diolch yn fawr.
Hannah Blythyn AM
Title: Minister for Environment Party: Welsh Labour
I thank the Member for his contributions. [Inaudible.] talking about the refill nation proposals and the use of water fountains. I think you’re right to raise that the issue of water fountains brings with it some complexity in terms of maintenance and upkeep and also issues around maintenance in terms of hygiene, as well. Although there are existing water fountains in a number of places, some of them are often of an age when they had lead pipes, so for that reason, it would be very problematic; you wouldn’t want to bring them into use.
So, I think the idea of the refill nation is to develop refill stations as much as we can and that detail will come along in due course. But actually, to my mind, they’re essentially more robust versions of what we see as a water fountain, which enables somebody to put their bottle on there and have it refilled. I’ve already spoken to representatives from local authorities on how we can work collectively, both with partners at a local government level, and with businesses to sign up to become part of the Wales refill nation, and about what existing facilities we can use to locate this network—can we use leisure centres, community centres and businesses?
I’ve also written to my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport about how we can actually make more of our transport network in terms of providing refill stations at major hubs in the first instance, as well.
Fast food packaging — yes, it does facilitate looking at wider EPR regulations in terms of can we encourage a consumer shift in terms of acceptance of using more environmentally friendly materials. I know, in terms of polystyrene takeaway packages, there are reports that, actually, the percentage of that in terms of overall litter is extremely low, but, actually, the density of how we find it in certain areas around certain takeaway establishments or shops does give an image of prevalence then, the more—. Notwithstanding, we do need to look at how we tackle that, because I know, like anybody here, that it is one of the biggest issues in terms of constituencies and people contacting AMs, MPs and councillors alike.
On wet wipes, I see that it’s been in the news today, actually. I think one of the things around that too is looking at, actually, better packaging and labelling in terms of flushability, and investing in the technology to actually get more environmentally friendly materials.
Water UK has a saying—I don’t know whether I’m allowed to say it in the Chamber, but I’m going to — that the sewer system is only designed for the three Ps, paper, poo and pee, not plastics. So, if there’s one thing for Members to take home—. But Dŵr Cymru have a Let’s Stop the Block campaign, so I think it does come back to what we do in our work on education and behavioural change, coupled with, actually, how we address packaging and labelling to make sure people are clear on what can and can’t go down the toilet, and actually not just saying, ‘You can’t do it,’ but the reasons behind it, the impact it has on the environment — actually, not only on the environment, but it has economic consequences to them in terms o —. I know that Dŵr Cymru spend around £7 million per year flushing out sewers as a consequence.