Margaret Thatcher, a chemistry graduate, started her career in plastics. Her first job was at an Essex-based firm called BX Plastics. “I love argument, I love debate,” she once said. “I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job.”
Now more than ever is the time for a debate on the future of plastics; not just within the industry, but more widely. How do we use our natural resources more efficiently and avoid waste as much as we can? We must be brave and begin an open and honest conversation, challenging ourselves and others. Yes, our materials are used to protect, preserve, package and prevent. But what about all our responsibilities to the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and recover? That is why I have launched the Plastics 2020 Challenge with Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle.
Plastics are essential to our everyday lives, and if anything are becoming more so. It is a £19 billion industry, with £4.6 billion exports, and employs 186,000 people across every parliamentary constituency in the land. The plastics industry is bigger than the automotive and pharmaceutical sectors combined. The country would come to a standstill if we truly, literally, dispensed with plastics.
But time is running out and we should think hard about what happens to plastics products after we put them in the bin. Even though plastics only accounts for 5% of landfill, and just 4% of crude oil is used by the industry, we should be willing to face up to our responsibilities and be prepared to debate all options for the future. The industry should do its bit; but so should national and local government and the consumer as well.
Should we press harder to make plastics even lighter and thinner in everyday products? Should we as consumers take more responsibility for litter? Should we look more closely at European capitals where plastic is efficiently – and safely – turned into heat and electricity for everyday use in our homes?
Now is the time for a new debate. In fact it’s more than a debate; it’s a challenge. A challenge to the plastics industry itself, to Government, to local authorities, to consumers, and also those who say we should do without plastics in our lives as much as possible. We all need to engage in the conversation to understand our environment better.
I was very pleased to help launch the Plastics 2020 Challenge. It is an industry that is fundamental to our way of life and often gets a bad press because it is so conspicuous in everyday life.
It is very important that those in the industry, environmentalists and politicians at a local and national level, all work together to rise to this challenge. Doubling the rate of plastic packaging recycling by 2020 will be a massive achievement and I strongly urge everyone to look at the website and to join the challenge to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.