This time last year I received a letter from my local MP, Julian Lewis, on what the UK Parliament were doing to tackle the problem of waste within the government. In that letter, Lewis discusses a mixed recycling scheme of various materials that are used in Parliament and claims that no waste produced in Parliament goes to landfill.

The letter I received from Julian Lewis last year


Lewis also goes on to discuss a review that was going into the use of single-use plastics that are being consumed in the House of Commons and briefly mentions a number of initiatives and pilot schemes that are being trialled in an attempt to reduce the amount of waste produced in Parliament.

I wrote to my local MP to support a campaign by Surfers Against Sewage to get rid of single-use plastics being used in Parliament. In 2017, the House of Commons and House of Lords together used over 2 million avoidable single-use plastic items. These include items like plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers, single serve condiments and coffee cups.

Even if none of this single-use plastic goes to waste in Parliament, there are many more environmentally-friendly alternatives that can be used instead, and Parliament should be doing everything they can to remove single-use plastics.

What has Parliament Done to Tackle Plastic?

In May last year, Parliament announced that it was planning to tackle the amount of single-use plastics used in the House of Commons. The steps that were announced mirror a lot of what is being done up and down the UK, but in some cases go even further.

Below is a full list of all the changes that were due to be enforced by this year:

  • Eliminate sales of water in plastic bottles
  • Introduce a 25p additional cost on hot drinks purchased in disposable cups (trial)
  • Sell reusable cups to encourage behaviour change away from single-use disposables
  • Incentivise use of reusable cups through additional loyalty rewards in the House of Commons and continued discounts in the House of Lords
  • Introduce fixed condiment sauce dispensers in the House of Commons
  • Substitute disposable catering items (including plastic-lined coffee cups) for compostable alternatives and introduce a compostable waste stream (including the purchase of 800 additional bins)
  • Replace plastic drinks tumblers with compostable cups across both Houses
  • Replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones in retail outlets
  • Implement a ‘green stationary’ catalogue
  • Produce procedures for incorporating the environmental impact of packaging into the weighting of relevant procurement and tender exercises
  • Pilot a reusable packaging ‘totes’ scheme for deliveries

One of the more impressive proposals made by Parliament is the total ban on the sale of water in plastic bottles. Doing so would immediately remove 125,000 plastic bottles from the annual waste stream. In order for water to remain available, Parliament plans to increase the number of water dispensers installed in Parliament buildings.

The increase of compostable products taking the place of single-use plastics also means that more bins will be installed in Parliament to ensure that these products are disposed of effectively.

The House of Commons Catering Services is key in removing single-use plastics from waste streams and make the necessary changes to reduce the amount of food waste produced. Changes the catering company make here directly impact the amount of waste produced in both the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Disposable coffee cups still exist but they are no longer plastic. A change made in October last year now means that rather than the normal plastic or ‘biodegradable plastic’, disposable coffee cups and some other food and drink disposable items are made entirely from plant fibres that are totally compostable. Catering Services also provide the opportunity for MPs and other staff to purchase reusable coffee cups and have added an additional charge for the use of disposable coffee cups.


Some MPs embraced the changes away from single-use plastics


There are still some other single-use plastic items supplied by Catering Services that they have not been able to change yet for a variety of reasons. Some changes would still be too costly to implement, some are just not yet possible. But Catering Services constantly review more environmentally-friendly alternatives and have removed a number of the worst materials from the supply chain.

Are they Going Far Enough?

In order to tackle the problem of single-use plastics, the proposed changes certainly go some way to reducing the amount that is produced in Parliament. It will be interesting to see what kind of results the proposed changes have on the amount of single-use plastic generated as well as the total waste more generally.

Do they go far enough though? The majority of the proposals by Parliament are as far as high street coffee shops or supermarkets are going; as good as they are, they’re not going to solve the plastic crisis.

It’s a complex issue and unfortunately there is no easy solution, but what more do you think the UK Government could do to tackle the problem of plastic in Parliament?

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