Environment Bill Day 2 – Plastic: the new asbestos

I suspect that not very far in the future, we will think of plastic as the new asbestos. We have known for a long time that plastic takes hundreds of thousands of years to break down, but only recently we have understood how bad that is. Plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces; it does not actually ever go away. We now see that microplastics are present almost everywhere, including in our own bodies. Plastics accumulate in the food that we eat, moving up the food chain until it reaches its highest concentration in our bodies and, most concerningly, in mothers’ breast milk. When microplastics get very small, they are referred to as nanoplastics. They are so small that they can cross cellular membranes and actually work their way into our individual cells. We are currently clueless about what that means for our health and the environment.

My Lords, I congratulate Lady Bakewell, on her amendments, which I am afraid I did not sign. That was a complete oversight on my part. I think her introduction was excellent.

I suspect that not very far in the future, we will think of plastic as the new asbestos. When we first had asbestos, it was hailed as a wonder material. It is highly heat resistant and an excellent electrical insulator, and it has been used in construction, for fireproofing, and even for making clothing and furniture. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that asbestos was used by humans quite a long time ago to strengthen ceramic pots, so it has been understood as a very valuable resource. Since the end of the 19th century, asbestos has been used in all sorts of buildings; any building constructed before the 1980s is likely to contain asbestos. Now, of course, the word “asbestos” is enough to stop people buying a property because it is so dangerous to human health when disturbed. I think we are going to see plastic as a dangerous material in the same way—probably more dangerous and more pervasive than asbestos.

Obviously, as other noble Lords have said, plastic has a lot of almost miracle properties, and the things that we can produce from plastic are integral to our way of life. However, its versatility and availability have led to exactly what Lord Wigley, said: we have used it mindlessly. We have made so much plastic that we are now in danger of being polluted by it ourselves. We have known for a long time that plastic takes hundreds of thousands of years to break down, but only recently we have understood how bad that is. Plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces; it does not actually ever go away. It just gets tiny and it gets everywhere, with quite damaging consequences.

We now see that microplastics are present almost everywhere, including in our own bodies. Plastics accumulate in the food that we eat, moving up the food chain until it reaches its highest concentration in our bodies and, most concerningly, in mothers’ breast milk. When microplastics get very small, they are referred to as nanoplastics. They are so small that they can cross cellular membranes and actually work their way into our individual cells. We are currently clueless about what that means for our health and the environment, but if it is anything like asbestos then a tiny amount can be incredibly damaging for our health.

Lord Lytton, and Lady McIntosh, talked about disposal. The Baroness said that it should be disposed of well and the noble Earl talked about safe disposal. There is no safe disposal. There is no way to make sure that it is well disposed of; that just does not happen. It is still there. We know that we have produced far too much plastic, and it is within our control to reduce the amount that is made.

Lady Meacher, mentioned masks. I am going to make my regular comment about the fact that—and I am going to try not to look at any Lords wearing them—the blue masks that some Lords are wearing today in this House are actually highly polluting. They are not paper but plasticised paper; they cannot be recycled; they end up in our seas and rivers; they kill animals; and obviously they are extremely ugly to see. I know it is not easy to replace them, and I would say that at least those Lords are wearing masks in the first place, but I have offered to replace such masks with material masks made in my little haberdasher’s down in Dorset rather than still seeing them as I look around the House.

The Bill absolutely has to set targets for reducing plastics because we have to start now to reduce the future burden. The problem is just going to get worse, and if we do not get it into the Bill then we probably will not deal with it.

Read the whole debate on Hansard