|Andrew R.T. Davies AC|
|Dai Lloyd AC|
|Gareth Bennett AC|
|John Griffiths AC|
|Mike Hedges AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|David Jones||Just One Ocean|
|Just One Ocean|
|Dr Chris Sherrington||Pennaeth Polisi Amgylcheddol ac Economeg, Eunomia|
|Head of Environmental Policy and Economics, Eunomia|
|Imogen Napper||Cymrawd Ymchwil, Ymchwil Microblastigau DEFRA--Prifysgol Plymouth|
|Research Fellow, DEFRA Microplastic Research, University of Plymouth|
|Simon Hann||Arbenigwr Asesu Cylch Bywyd, Eunomia|
|Life Cycle Assessment Specialist, Eunomia|
|Steve Wilson||Rheolwr Gyfarwyddwr Gwasanaethau Dŵr Gwastraff, Dŵr Cymru|
|Managing Director of Wastewater Services, Welsh Water|
|Elizabeth Wilkinson||Ail Glerc|
|Marc Wyn Jones||Clerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau||1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest|
|2. Ymchwiliad i effaith llygredd microblastigau yn nyfrffyrdd Cymru: sesiwn dystiolaeth tri||2. Inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways: evidence session three|
|3. Ymchwiliad i effaith llygredd microblastigau yn nyfrffyrdd Cymru: sesiwn dystiolaeth pedwar||3. Inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways: evidence session four|
|4. Ymchwiliad i effaith llygredd microblastigau yn nyfrffyrdd Cymru: sesiwn dystiolaeth pump||4. Inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways: evidence session five|
|5. Papurau i'w nodi||5. Paper(s) to note|
|6. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitemau 7 ac 8||6. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for items 7 and 8|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:02.
The meeting began at 09:02.
Bore da a chroeso cynnes iawn.
Good morning and a very warm welcome.
Can I remind people to set their mobile phones to silent and to turn off any other electronic equipment that may interfere with the broadcasting equipment? We've had apologies from Jayne Bryant and Joyce Watson; we're expecting Gareth Bennett to be joining us later. Any declarations of interest? No.
If we, perhaps, move on to our first public discussion: inquiry into the impact of microplastic pollution in Welsh waterways, evidence session No. 3. We've got Steve Wilson, the managing director of waste water services, Dŵr Cymru. Croeso. Welcome. Do you want to make a short statement at the beginning, or are you ready to go straight into questions?
Good morning. Yes, if it's okay, I'll make a short statement. Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water wants to develop a much better understanding of the occurrences and types of plastics found through all the different processes that we operate, and so we've taken a lead with UKWIR, the UK water industry research group, to do a big study into the fate of nanoplastics and microplastics through water and waste water operations. This project is entitled 'Sink to River—River to Tap—A review of Potential Risks from Nano-particles and Microplastics'. It started in July of this year and it's due to conclude in the spring of 2019.
We're very pleased to see from the evidence in front of this committee that there's a real consensus around our line on control at source. This is a shared problem, and we all need to do our part. Welsh Water's Let's Stop the Block campaign is a model, I think, for behavioural change at an individual level. Each person can make a difference in this way, and we also highly recommend the 'wash and wear well' advice from the Women's Institute. Minimising microfibres when clothes are being washed is an important factor, given that one of the main sources through the waste water process will be from clothes washing.
There is no current reliable UK evidence on microplastics in drinking water. The evidence that's been drawn by other bodies has been really coming from the US, and that's why this study that we're doing with UKWIR is really important.
We know there are microplastics in final effluent out of sewerage works and in biosolids in our sewage sludge, and we're working to quantify what's in each of those pathways and whether that's getting through to the environment. Knowing what's in our crude sewage will help us get a grip on whether there are any contributions to the marine environment from our combined sewer overflows.
I think we all know that plastics are endemic in society, and it's important that we collectively understand all these sources and we all share the responsibility as citizens to minimise their use while we try and understand if there are any impacts from those.
Thank you. We're all aware—and we've seen bottles going down rivers et cetera, but it's the microplastics, the ones we can't see, which many of us, five years ago, didn't know existed in the water supply. Perhaps that's something that is more of a problem. What do you think are, or have you got any research on, the main sources of microplastic pollution and the extent to which microplastics, including synthetic microfibres, are a problem in the Welsh aquatic environment? We were told last week about some work taking water out and the huge amount of microplastics that were found in what looked like ordinary, clean water.
The best studies that we've come across are those from Eunomia, who've been doing a piece of work—and I think they're giving evidence shortly after me—in terms of looking at the different sources of these microplastics. That's the best evidence that we've come across. We're also aware of the work that Cardiff University, Professor Ormerod, has been doing in the Taff catchment particularly, and it is those pieces of evidence that informed us in terms of trying to do our own study now around where these plastics are coming from.
As I've said before, there is no evidence at the moment in the UK about plastics in our drinking water; that does come from America. I did used to work for an American water company for a couple of years. America's a vast country, but actually every municipality tends to run its own water and waste water services, so actually you have a vast range of different processes out there. If we think about the UK, this is a highly regulated sector and it has been regulated for a long period of time now—the Drinking Water Inspectorate, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, our own Natural Resources Wales have been regulating this for a long time. So, we have no evidence at the moment that there are microplastics present in our drinking water.
I adeiladu ar hynny—a diolch yn fawr am eich papur, eich tystiolaeth ysgrifenedig ymlaen llaw—rwyf jest eisiau ehangu ychydig bach ar y drafodaeth. Pa mor gynhwysfawr ydych chi'n credu ydy ein gwybodaeth ni am raddfa llygredd microblastig a'i effeithiau? Faint ydym ni'n gwybod ar hyn o bryd am faint y broblem, a faint arall sydd yn rhaid inni wybod? Rwy'n croesawu'r ffaith eich bod yn dweud nad oes dim nanoblastigau yn ein dŵr yfed ni ym Mhrydain, ond efallai bod angen rhagor o astudiaethau.
To build on that—and thank you for your written evidence paper that we received beforehand—and just to expand a little bit on the discussion, how comprehensive do you think our knowledge is about the scale of microplastic pollution and its effects? How much do we currently know about the size of the problem and how much more do we need to know? I welcome the fact that you do say that there aren't any nanoplastics in our drinking water in Britain, but perhaps more studies are needed.
I think this is an emerging area, still, for research. The fact that the water industry in the UK is only just now kicking off this piece of work shows that we're all becoming aware around the same time, I think, of the presence of these plastics. Therefore, more work does need to be done. First and foremost, we have to agree, actually, the methodology for measuring and actually quantifying these plastics. At the moment, there is no standard methodology for typing these kinds of plastics and, actually, are we measuring by number or are we measuring by weight? In the water industry, you can imagine, when it comes to sampling our drinking waters and our waste waters, having standard methodology so we can compare across the country and with Europe is very important. So, one of the key things here is now to actually agree a methodology so that we are all understanding the problem on an equal footing.
So, it is early days, but we are starting to try to quantify these impacts. Therefore, in the meantime, supporting where plastic is a discretionary use, and actually if there are viable alternatives, it would make a lot of sense, and going back to the behavioural approach, we commend and support all the work that Welsh Government have been doing here in Wales around our recycling. That is only going to help in this situation. Environmental awareness is high around these kind of subjects. We all know from the television campaigns about—not the microplastics; it's the large plastics we've seen in the oceans, but actually that's increased the public's awareness. The fact that now people are talking about plastic particles in cosmetics et cetera—you know, there's a growing awareness. We ought to harness that at the same time and say, whilst we are still trying to quantify the amount of plastic and whether there are any harmful effects from that, actually minimising it would only be good for the environment.
Diolch am hynny. Ac ar gefn hynny, wrth gwrs beth mae'r ymchwil yma yn ymwneud ag o ydy'r plastig sy'n achosi llygredd, a dweud y gwir, ac rydym ni wedi camu ymlaen oddi wrth y plastigau mawr ac rydym ni'n mynd lawr i'r microblastigau a'r nanoblastigau. Felly, pa fesurau sydd gyda chi o ran Dŵr Cymru i fynd ar ôl y nanoblastigau bach yna sy'n achosi—? Achos y gair mawr yma ydy 'llygredd'—'llygredd microblastig', sef nid jest y darnau rŷch chi'n gallu eu gweld, ond y darnau bach nad ydych chi'n gallu eu gweld, ac maen nhw ym mhobman. Sut ydych chi'n mynd i'r afael â hynny fel Dŵr Cymru?
Thank you for that. And on the back of that, of course what this inquiry's involved in is plastics that cause pollution, and we're stepping away from these big plastics and we're going down to these microplastics and nanoplastics. So, what measures do you have with Welsh Water to pursue those nanoplastics that cause—? Because 'pollution' is the key word—'microplastic pollution', which is not just the bits you can see, but those tiny pieces that you can't see, and they're all pervasive. How do you tackle that as Welsh Water?
Tackling this is going to be a big issue for society. Welsh Water prides itself on its environmental credentials. We have a high-quality product that we value very, very highly, and protecting the environment is key to us. But given most of these sources—we can see from the Eunomia work that tyre wear is a big factor, the clothing that we're wearing is another secondary, large factor, and actually tackling those in a water and waste water context could well be very, very expensive and difficult to do. So, control at source is our key requirement here.
I think we are still in these early stages of trying to be able to quantify the amount of plastic and understand, then, if it is passing through into the environment, what impact that is having. So, we support all the other speakers who've been here talking about the need for further research, and we're doing that ourselves.
It's also worth considering the alternatives to our current practices. There's been some mention about how effective the waste water treatment process is at taking out plastics. There's some evidence that says 80 to 90 per cent of the micro and nanoplastics that come through the drainage network are removed in the sewage treatment process. That's quite a good capture rate, considering the biological processes that we have. If the industry was to go to a greater degree of capture, that would mean a considerable wholesale re-engineering of our waste water infrastructure, and a considerable bill for our customers.
I hear what you say, that obviously it's better to deal with these matters at source, and I think we'd probably all agree with that, but presumably there are things that Welsh Water could do that it would want to do anyway in terms of investment in its infrastructure that would help with these problems. So, with capacity, for example, presumably you have a programme of work to improve capacity, because there are issues, aren't there, about insufficient capacity leading to flooding, for example, and then people suffering sewage-contaminated water in their properties? So, I guess there are things that you have planned, and things that you will do and things that you could do, which need to be done anyway, and will help deal with these problems.
Yes, thank you. I think the main area that we're focusing on now around sewer capacity is actually our RainScape approach. Can we put more sustainable urban drainage into our catchments to actually minimise the amount of surface water going into the sewers therefore being contaminated with sewage, and then escaping to the environment? We've got over 3,000 combined sewer overflows across Wales. We are never going to be able to remove all of those and, in fact, this weekend is a really good example of why combined sewer overflows are essential. There were around 20 properties, unfortunately, this weekend flooded with sewage. There would have been thousands without combined sewer overflows, given storm Callum this weekend.
We are focusing on trying to reduce the frequency at which our combined sewer overflows operate, but part of that is about taking the surface water out, uncoupling highway drains, uncoupling surface water. If a major source of the plastics getting into the marine environment is from tyre wear off a highway, that will be going into the environment, not into the sewer network. So, actually, it does require a much more holistic view.
That said, if we're putting green infrastructure in in terms of the RainScape things—and you only need to go down the road now to see Greener Grangetown and the big project we've got in Llanelli—where we're using green infrastructure to soak up the water through an engineered structure below the ground with planters and soil, that will act as a filter mechanism. And one of the other pieces of work we're intending to do, now that we've just completed the Greener Grangetown project, is to do some monitoring post those combined sewer overflows, to see how effective sustainable urban drainage and green infrastructure is at reducing the amount of particles getting into the marine environment, in comparison to the more traditional piped direct discharge into the rivers.
You touched a little earlier in your evidence on clothes and microplastics in the washing process and the making of clothes. What incentives do you understand that the manufacturers of the detergents, but also of the clothes themselves, are putting in place to try and lessen the microplastics in those procedures? Because, obviously, whilst I appreciate it's not in your ballpark, you have an interest in it because it goes back to behavioural change and changing things at source, rather than trying to capture the problem further down the line.
We're only really just becoming aware now of the amount of microfibres getting through into the sewer network. If you think about the journey that the water industry has been on over the last few years, we've been focusing on the bacteriological quality considerably, to improve our bathing waters, to improve the marine environment, our shellfish waters, et cetera. So, most of our efforts of work over the last few years have been about trying to minimise the amount of bacteriological contamination. We're now only starting to really become aware of those fibres. I'm not aware of work that the clothing industry is doing.
From what we do know—that's why we're very supportive of the Women's Institute's piece of work—actually, back to—. You know, I have three teenage children at home and I know how often our washing machine is operating. Actually, you know, trying to look at the cycles of washing that we do: do you put it on for two hours or do you find the eco setting to reduce the amount of washing? Do you really need to wash it as frequently? All those kinds of good things are really worth pushing and pursuing, because they have multiple benefits. Saving water saves money, it saves the environment and saves the impact from the clothes that are being washed.
There's been a lot of work around detergents, primarily because of the concern about the fate of phosphates getting through—you know, phosphates in detergents adding to the burden of phosphates in our rivers, and what that does. The detergent industry has worked quite hard now, and there was legislation to reduce the amount of phosphates within detergents. I'm not aware at the moment of anything that is looking at the amount of nanoparticles and microplastics from that.
So, is that an area that does need considerable work in? Because, obviously, you've identified the work that you as a service provider have done over recent years, and there does seem to be huge progress on that. I think you talked about 80 to 90 per cent of microplastics being captured within your plant system. If I'd asked you that question maybe 10 years ago, it would most probably would have been a far lower number than that. So, from the answers you've given, there seems to be an indication that from your service provider's point of view, there have been huge strides in this area, but actually going back to source, which is the clothes themselves and the process that we as consumers go through washing them, there's been little or no awareness or measures put in place to promote better use of and reduction of microplastics. Would that be a fair assessment?
I think that would be a fair assessment, which is why, back to the UKWIR piece of research that we're doing, understanding the types of microplastics that we are finding, and therefore being able to quantify what percentage in UK and Welsh waters we're finding fibres from clothing as opposed to particles from tyres, as opposed to cosmetics, is an important part, then, in terms of helping us work on where the next set of campaigns are.
Clearly, for us in the water industry, one of the key things we are working very hard on is the removal of wet wipes. There is some discussion at the moment about whether there should be a flushability standard for wet wipes. Well, flushability just means that it breaks up and therefore, actually, if it's containing plastic fibres that is not a good solution, and could actually add to the burden of problems here. So, one of the key things that we're working on is that these products should not be flushable, even if they do break down and get through the u-bend of your toilet and maybe not cause a blockage, we're still then breaking up plastic products to travel through the process. And back to the 80 to 90 per cent capture, the more plastic that's getting into the network, then even if we're capturing 90 per cent, a greater volume is coming out the other side. So, we're very keen to see that things like plastics are not disposed of through the drainage network, and wet wipes, cotton buds, these things, if we can take those out, that will reduce the burden we're receiving at the waste water treatment end considerably.
Just on treatment plants, you said you had experience in America where you had a far more diverse regulatory environment and, I presume, different states have different provisions. That creates different service levels, that does, then. You've touched on 80 to 90 per cent capture at the moment. How feasible is it to move plant up to 100 per cent capture? By 'feasible', I mean economically as well as logistically. Or is it something that is most probably unachievable, even with upgrades as and when they come? So, rather than having a specific programme to upgrade as and when that machine needs upgrading in its normal life span, you just wouldn't get to 100 per cent anyway.
It is very, very unlikely and incredibly cost prohibitive to get down to that kind of level. Whenever you look at the cost curves around these investments, I think a good example goes back to the RainScape approach. We did a lot of studies in Llanelli about how much capture of all the surface waters we could get to, and the curve just looks like a hockey stick once you get beyond 90-odd per cent, because the degree of screening and filtering that you have to put in means that the land take to be able to do that with, you know, a fine filter with such large volumes—. And, again, considering the aquatic environment in Wales, there's a base load of sewage treatment, but actually we are still taking—. Most of the sewers in Wales are combined sewers. We're taking the rain water, the run-off—the volumes would be immense. So, we're talking billions of pounds to be able to do that. Even RainScape, which is the right thing to do for many good reasons—not just around plastics, but particularly thinking about climate change adaptation, thinking about environmental protection—in our estimates in our Welsh Water 2050 vision documents, we're looking at over £1 billion to be able to RainScape 90 per cent of the sewer network, or serving 90 per cent of the population of Wales.
Sticking with the RainScaping and surface water issues, which, as you say, are crucial with plastic and tyres and so on, it's pretty expensive to take forward these schemes, but presumably it's pretty expensive to do general alternative infrastructure work anyway. So, what's the relative cost? If you weren't doing the RainScaping, you would have to update and improve what people might see as the more traditional infrastructure in any event. So, is RainScaping relatively more expensive or not?
At the moment, compared to laying traditional pipes, RainScape is around the same kind of price, but actually, there are certain situations—. Llanelli was a good example where the size of the tanks and the pipes were so large to be able to capture that amount of water that you're into multiple Olympic-sized swimming pools, and then it becomes the feasibility of actually being able to empty them and deal with them before the next storm. So, as a consequence, in that situation, to get down to 90 per cent of the surface waters in a town or city catchment being collected, then RainScape makes good economic sense. We want to promote it. The benefits of a green infrastructure are far greater than just the environmental. There are the well-being benefits and the biodiversity benefits, so clearly, we want to push this. And that's why we're very keen, over this next 12 months, to start to actually understand and measure some impacts in terms of the benefit, if there is one, in terms of microplastic and nanoplastic collection—how good are they at filtering that out and protecting the environment from those kinds of pollution particles?
Okay. I'm sure that the committee would very much appreciate being kept up to date with that work, Steve. Do you believe that there should be mandatory measures through legislation to ensure that we have far fewer microplastics getting into our environment? Is that something you'd support?
I think, for us, the situation around wet wipes is a great example, where we can see the problems that they cause, particularly the fact that there are over 2,000 blockages every month in Wales caused by wet wipes that are not biodegrading. That can cause misery for customers who find that their sewers are backing up into their homes. And then, if they are getting through to the treatment works, that's another element that we have to capture, and there is no need for them to be in the drainage network. So, that area and the area around cotton buds particularly, again, the plastic element is unnecessary.
I think when it comes to talking about legislation around microparticles, we absolutely support the work that's been done around the cosmetics—again, there are good, sensible alternatives that we don't need to put in the environment—but I think we're still at the early stages in understanding which sources are having the most impact in Wales. That's why this piece of research is really important to us, to know, as a percentage, is it the tyres, is it clothing? Which areas do we need to really focus in on? So, I think it's a little bit premature to be saying what legislation needs to be put in place, until we have a better understanding, particularly in our own environment, around what plastics are coming in, but we would absolutely welcome some support and legislation around the unnecessary disposal of plastics into the drainage network.
You would highlight wet wipes and cotton buds as two obvious examples of that.
Could I ask you about public awareness of the issues? Helping the public become more aware of these matters and, indeed, perhaps, achieving necessary and helpful behavioural change is very difficult, I think. Is Welsh Water doing anything in terms of your customers, in terms of trying to raise awareness and change behaviour?
Yes. I mentioned the Let's Stop the Block campaign, but, actually, when we had the Volvo Ocean Race in Cardiff this summer, we supported down there by doing a number of educational workshops with children to talk about, actually, plastics in that situation as well—supporting the Volvo Ocean Race's campaign around plastics in the environment.
We pride ourselves on having a very good education service. I think starting with children in terms of understanding the environmental impacts—they're a great source of driving recycling at home, around behavioural change, and we've focused a lot in that area.
Stop the Block is a very interesting one. We've been at this now for two or three years. We've got a high degree of awareness. When we survey customers now—you've seen the television adverts and we've run campaigns in certain catchment areas where we've had high blockage counts—there's very good awareness. Over 90 per cent of customers are aware that they shouldn't be putting these things down the drain.
However, when I look at what I'm receiving in our sewerage works, when I look at the number of blockages we're still removing from the sewer network, there is something about human behaviour that says, 'When I close the toilet door—'. What goes on there is down to individuals. We are not as effective as we'd like to be, so we're working really hard now with some new behavioural psychologists around how we better segment the message with different customers—at different points in your life, you have different pressures, so what are the behaviours that people have?—to try and be more effective.
It's an ongoing area for us. By no means can we say that we're experts in this at all, but we are committed to try and get more behavioural change. I think it chimes quite well with our not-for-profit, here-for-the-good-of-Wales ethos that, actually, we should spend a lot more time and effort on education and working with our customers in this kind of way.
Yes, I'm not quite sure that at half past nine in the morning we need to know what goes on in people's toilets. [Laughter.] But I do take your point. We know that smoking, for example, is devastating to people's health, so we tax it. We know that plastic bags in the environment are harmful, so we tax it. As a Conservative, I'm not a big fan of taxes, but, ultimately, I do get the point that to create behavioural change sometimes those levers have to be deployed.
It seems quite clear from the evidence and, we do understand, from wider information, obviously, that some of these products that you talked of are devastating to the environment and do cause huge financial problems to you as a service provider that we all depend on. Would a form of levy or some form of taxation on certain products, such as wet wipes, for example, be beneficial in speeding up that behavioural change that you and others have identified? And, as I said, we understand they are a problem.
I think we need to deploy all the different levers that we can when we know we've got an environmental problem. Clearly, I would love to be able to do this through education alone, but I think it does need to be considered, yes, when we know that there are sensible alternatives, and that, actually, they are causing environmental damage and misery to customers who suffer sewer flooding on the back of these blockages—it's costing Welsh Water and, therefore, our customers £7 million every year to clear those blockages. Actually, there is some merit in considering that.
Could I ask, as it's relatively easy with the products I offered you as examples where we do put a levy, a tax on them—cigarettes are cigarettes at the end of the day, plastic bags are plastic bags—is it quite easy to define the types of products that are causing this problem? And, if policy makers were looking into this area as a potential area for levy/taxation, it would be a relatively simple exercise to capture those products—or is it a far more complex landscape, and, actually, while it might be desirable to put some price pressure in these areas, to actually capture the right products could be a minefield to go into?
Manufacturers are forever evolving and innovating and creating a range of different products, so it is a moving landscape at this moment in time. I think labelling to start off with, around, 'Do not flush' is a very good start on this kind of way, before we start to be able to look at how we can tax. I think any kind of product that contains plastic—putting a 'Do not flush' sticker on that kind of thing would be a really good start in that way before we have to start to segregate what's plastic fibre versus some other kind of woven fibre. The key thing for us is that the drainage network was designed for the three Ps, and the paper product breaks up quite nicely; that's what we need to see being flushed. Other products that contain plastic need to go in the bin.
Okay, thank you. Can I just come back to microplastics and car tyres? Up until last week, I didn't know car tyres had microplastics in them. I think some other Members in here are in exactly the same position. Tyres are price sensitive; when we buy tyres, we make a decision on price. Tyres didn't use to have microplastics in them. I don't know when they first started putting them in, but, certainly, they haven't always had microplastics. Surely, if you put a tax on microplastics in tyres to such an extent that it would be cheaper to buy tyres without microplastics per mile, then people would stop buying tyres with microplastics. That's how taxation can work to change people's behaviour by the fact that it's going to cost me more to buy tyres with microplastics in them.
I think the points you make are very valid. We too are only really just learning about plastics from tyres. And, back to the point about the drainage network versus the surface water and highway drainage network, I think this is something that is much wider than just the water companies' provision. We're spending all this time and effort taking surface water out to stop homes flooding with sewage to actually prevent contamination with sewage getting into the marine environment from these CSOs, but, actually, a big part of that is uncoupling the highway drains from the sewer network. So, actually, understanding the amount of plastics getting into the environment from tyres is an important area for us to look at, because we might be unwittingly creating a larger problem here. That said, if we can put on the end of those highway drains green infrastructure that is filtering that, then we have a double benefit, don't we? It's taking that out and we're getting more green infrastructure in our environment. So, this is an area we need to look at, I think, quite urgently.
I was just going to ask as well to what extent are water metres significant to this in terms of behavioural change, because, obviously, if people are paying every time they flush the toilet, they might be less inclined to throw things down there willy-nilly, as it were, and flush them away. And, in terms of the capacity of the system, presumably, it's quite important that water metres are rolled out so that the volume of water that has to be dealt with on a daily basis is less. How significant is the roll-out of water metres to these particular issues?
Water metres can have an impact in terms of consumption, but my note of caution here is that, particularly in hard-pressed families, there's not a lot of discretionary water use, and, therefore, the issue with water meters is, if I'm a single mother at home with three children, I'm not spending my money washing cars or watering an expensive lawn, I'm actually using water for quite essential purposes. So, there is a cost to customers from having a water meter, and so, I don't think, particularly in Wales, with our social demographics, that that is a panacea.
It's also a tricky one for us, given that the actual cost of the commodity itself is quite low; it is the cost of the infrastructure to provide it that is where the majority of the costs for your water bill goes. But I think where we're heading with smart meters—you know, we're getting more used to them, aren't we, with our electric meter now? If you've got a smart meter at home and you put the kettle on—. I can certainly tell when my 17-year-old son's come home and put his computer on, et cetera. So, you can start to see these behaviours happening. Actually, looking at smart metering in terms of, there and then, having an impact, I think they have more impact with customers who have more discretionary time and money to be able to do things about that.
Behavioural change, I think, starts, though, with the awareness piece, and the more we can do to be out and about, raising issues around the environment, is a good thing. We've spent quite a lot of time over the last couple of years attending as many events, shows, et cetera—to try and send those messages out and start with an awareness point, and then weave into that, around the benefits to the environment, from saving water are not only in terms of your own pocket, but, actually, good to the environment. We're taking less water out of the environment, that's better for the aquatic environment, and, actually, if we're using less through washing machines, et cetera, then, we are reducing the amount of fibres getting through into the network. So, I think it's those multiple benefits that we need to maybe push a bit more in our messaging, which, to date, we haven't really gone there yet.
Obviously, Welsh Government have a lot of policy levers at their disposal. If we look at rubbish recycling, for example, through the policy levers, if you went back 10, 20 years ago, most people just lobbed everything into green bags, they did, then. Obviously, through what Welsh Government and others have done, now most people understand that, actually, you segregate your refuse, a lot of that can be reused, and, actually, quite a few people are interested in that as well, and the journey it goes on. Do you see any policy levers in this particular field when it comes to microplastics that Welsh Government could be using to greater advantage? Or do you believe that progress in this area is going well and policy is strong enough and doesn't need to be adjusted?
I think we can be very proud of the approach in Wales to recycling, being one of the best countries around for that. I've just come back from Denmark; we were off in Copenhagen last week, and they were actually quite envious of where we were getting to, here, with our recycling. That said, back to the wet-wipe issue, actually, having alternatives and having collections for things like nappies and wipes at a local authority level, would help in that kind of area. Some local authorities do have a disposable-nappy separate collection, and if that was more widespread, and, actually, wet wipes could go in the same bag because they are, ostensibly, made of the same kind of plastic fibrous woven material, then, actually, that would benefit. So, I think there are always areas we can look at in terms of trying to push the boundaries around our recycling performance further.
But you're director level, so you're a senior member of the Welsh Water team, you are, then. You look at the landscape. If you could sit there with Welsh Government and say, 'Actually, what would greatly assist me is: one, two, possibly three policy areas that you need to be pulling those levers a bit stronger on', what three would you suggest that they should be promoting? I heard what you said about the wet wipes, and we've talked extensively about wet wipes this morning, but is it as simple as almost getting the ear of the Minister and saying, 'We're doing well, we've ticked those boxes there, but, actually, we could do that much better if you used A, B and C'?
There's nothing at the moment that is at the very top of my list other than those kinds of areas. That said, we need to understand more about the clothing issue and the fibres that are coming through there, and it's about following up this research now and seeing where that takes us. So, is it to do with the fact that more synthetic, woven materials break down easily? Is it to do with the fact that we are moving towards more of a cheaper manufacturer and change our clothes more frequently? I think there's a lot of understanding that we need to do in that area first before we can start to say, 'What's the right lever to pull?'. I'm afraid we're at this early stage in our own awareness here at the moment, rather than giving you ideas to run with. We still want to see the results of this research before we can decide where to target first.
Yes. Sorry, but I'm still going to go on about wet wipes and cotton buds, because you've mentioned them as two particular products. As I understand it, we don't need, as a society, to have these products; there are other products available that could do the same job. So, there's the option that Andrew was saying, which is that, yes, we could tax these products. Well, wouldn't it be wiser simply to ban them, as there are other alternatives? Would that not be the best solution?
With cotton buds, removing the plastic stem and having a cardboard stem for the cotton bud itself is a perfectly acceptable solution. It works equally as effectively and it also breaks down, so I think the banning of plastic cotton buds is something that could be considered. When we get into wet wipes, there's a range, isn't there? There are the classic baby wipes, and even though my children are teenagers now, it's amazing how we still have packets of those in the house, so, they are useful products that consumers use. So, I think banning is not the right answer there. The problem is human behaviour. We like to save time, effort and energy—that's our natural reaction—and if these products are very helpful, which clearly they are—I look at my own household usage—then banning doesn't feel like the right answer, but, actually, education and very clear labelling to signpost customers where these need to go, I think, is a better route.
At the moment, there's a discussion going on within the industry—the manufacturing bodies that make these—about, 'Should we have flushable wipes and put "these are flushable" on them?'. The problem with flushable is that all it does is it breaks up in the drainage network, so it can get past your u-bend, and it might not cause a blockage in your sewer pipe, but it's just breaking up and putting plastic fibres through into the treatment process. Actually, saying that these should not be flushed but binned is, I think, the right way forward. Now, if we can promote collection of those separately with nappies and a recycling option rather than them going in the black bag waste, then, even better.
Thanks. Overall, in terms of getting a reduction of plastic in the environment, are there any other measures that we could be looking at doing?
Not at the top of my list. As I said, I think, come spring, when we've been analysing the results from this piece of research, we might well be in a different situation. If the committee is interested at that point, we'll maybe update you on what that research has come up with.
I'm sure we will be. I think this is an issue that is important not just to the committee, but to the people of Wales, and I think this is something that will almost certainly carry on for some time. Thank you very much for coming along and sharing your experience and knowledge with us. It was very helpful as we continue our journey of—in my case at least—discovery as much as anything else. Thank you very much.
Bore da, good morning. Can I welcome Dr Chris Sherrington and Simon Hann to the meeting? Do you want to make a short introduction or are you ready to go straight to questions?
Happy to go straight to questions.
I'll go straight to questions, then. From your research, what do you think the main sources of microplastic pollution are and the extent to which microplastics are a problem within Wales? And how have we got to here, because, if we went back 100 years, an awful lot of these products that now are full of microplastics weren't?
Do you want me to take this?
Yes, if you want to start on that, I've got a few points to add.
So, our research for the European Commission fairly recently was focused on microplastics from wear and tear, or generated during the life of a product. So, they don't necessarily contain them as such, but they, as part of their life, generate them. So, things like tyre wear, for instance—the tyres themselves don't actually contain the microplastics. They are made of a polymer, but during the wear, when the cars are driving along, these particles are created. It's similar with things like textiles, so, washing of clothing—the fibres themselves are not microplastics in themselves, but when the clothing is washed, these fibres break apart and then could go down the drain. So, those are two of the main ones we found at the time.
Every plastic product has a raw material that's used to create it, and it comes in a pellet form. So, it's produced and then shipped around before it's sent to a reprocessor to mould into a product. These pellets are sometimes called nurdles and other various terms. We suspect that they are being lost in quite large numbers. They're being found on beaches all over the place, and it's a difficult one to quantify because you don't know quite where they're being lost, all the points. But we suspect that with any way in which these pellets are being transferred—so, they're being transferred from ships to lorries to trains—all these points along the supply chain, you might get a few pellets lost here there and everywhere, and it all adds up. At the moment, for the plastics industry, it's such a small amount that the clean-up cost is just not worth it for them at the moment, because there's no incentive. So, those are the three main ones that we looked at. Do you want to add anything to that?
Yes, I think it's also worth making a distinction between primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. So, any plastic that enters the environment, be it on land or particularly if it's in the marine environment, it will, through exposure to sunlight, break down, and ultimately things will turn into microplastics. So, I think the work that we did recently was focusing on those that are generated through their lifetime, but you also have macroplastics—big items—that will contribute to the problem.
I think, just in terms of the context, we looked at the—. Obviously, a lot of the focus has been on the microplastics in personal care products—microbeads—but the ban is fairly tightly defined. It's just on rinse-off products, so, things that are designed to be applied and then very quickly rinsed off. It doesn't include things like sunscreen, which you put on and then you might swim in the sea, but you don’t rinse off straight away. So, they're actually outside the scope, but, even so, the actual amount included in these personal care products is very, very small compared to things like the pellets, the vehicle tyre wear and also the textiles. So, it's received a lot of attention, and I think there's a perception that, 'Oh, great, this is being dealt with', but it is a very small part of the overall issue.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. A allaf i ddiolch yn y lle cyntaf ichi am eich papur bendigedig, mae’n rhaid imi ddweud? Yn hwnnw, rydych chi’n cydnabod, yn amlwg, fod yna fylchau yn ein gwybodaeth ni am raddfa llygredd microblastig a nanoblastigau. Ac, wrth gwrs, y gair newydd ydy ‘llygredd microblastigau’—nid jest darnau mawr, ond y darnau bach nad ydym ni'n gallu eu gweld. Felly, y cwestiwn cyntaf ydy: ymhle mae angen cael mwy o ymchwil i ehangu’n gwybodaeth ni o faint y llygredd microblastig yma? A’r ail beth ydy: o fyd sydd ychydig bach yn wahanol ond yn gysylltiedig, yn enwedig pan fyddwn ni’n sôn am deiars, ac rydym ni’n sôn am ronynnau yn y fan yna—y PM10 a’r PM2.5 sy’n deillio o losgi carbon ac ati—a’r gronynnau bach iawn yma sy’n mynd i mewn i’n hysgyfaint ni, ac mae rhai ohonyn nhw mor fach fel eu bod nhw’n mynd i mewn i gylchrediad ein gwaed ni, hefyd, ac yn glanio i fyny yn ein calonnau ni—mae yna ddigon o dystiolaeth am hynny nawr gyda gronynnau PM2.5 a llai—a oes yna’r fath yna o wybodaeth yn y byd microblastigau, achos mae yna ychydig bach o ddryswch ynglŷn â sut rydym ni’n mesur maint nanoblastigau o’i gymharu â gronynnau PM2.5, er enghraifft. Felly, mae yna dystiolaeth gadarn o sgil-effeithiau niweidiol ar iechyd pobl yn deillio o ronynnau sy’n deillio o losgi carbon. A ydym ni mewn unrhyw fath o le i ddweud yr un math o beth ynglŷn â nanoblastigau?
Thank you very much, Chair. Can I thank you in the first instance for your paper? I have to say it was wonderful, and you acknowledge that, obviously, there are gaps in our knowledge of the scale of the microplastic pollution and nanoplastics. Of course, the new term is ‘microplastic pollution’, which relates to those bits that we can’t see, not just the bigger pieces. Therefore, the first question is: in what areas do we need to undertake more research in order to expand our knowledge of the extent of microplastic pollution? Secondly, from a different slant, and, especially when we are talking about tyres, we are talking about particles—PM10 and PM2.5 stemming from burning carbon and such like—and those very small particles that we ingest into our lungs, some of which are so small that they enter our cardiovascular system and end up in our hearts—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that with the PM2.5 and smaller particles—is that knowledge available in the microplastic world, because there’s some confusion as to how we measure the scale of nanoplastics compared to smaller PM2.5 particles? So, there is robust evidence of the damaging effects on people stemming from those particles from burning carbon. Are we in any place to say the same of nanoplastics?
Shall I take that one? Thank you very much. In terms of what we should do for future research, there’s obviously a lot going on, and it’s all over the place, in different countries, but one of the big things is how we move from what we think is happening to what we know is happening. Certainly, there’s some research going on with DEFRA at the moment that we’re involved with via the University of Plymouth. As part of our research, we created a bit of a model as to where tyre particles are generated and where they might go. And what Plymouth uni are doing at the moment is actually working out whether that’s happening in reality. So, they’re doing direct measurements on the ground; they’re putting measurement devices by the side of roads—how far do these particles travel, and then how likely are they to get to water courses? So, measuring near the roads and then near the estuary to get a proper map as to where they’re going. For tyre particles, that’s a really important thing to do, because we know they’re being deposited—no-one’s arguing about that—but the question is where are they going and what do they do when they get there.
Another strand of that is: what is the nature of the particle itself? In the tyre industry, they use the terminology of road and tyre wear particles. They say that whenever a particle is created, it’s 50 per cent road, asphalt, and 50 per cent of the tyre rubber itself. And, by that reasoning, that creates a particle that is negatively buoyant—i.e. it will sink and therefore become part of the sediment. If it ends up in rivers and estuaries, it will just sediment out. We don’t believe, through our research, that that is strictly true of all particles. I think we’ve seen a lot of contradictory research that suggests that the particles can come in many different varieties. So, they can be 50 per cent, they can be zero, they can also incorporate air bubbles, which make them float. I think the tyre industry are very keen to make out that they will always sink and therefore not be a problem, whereas I think there needs to be a bit more research into what the nature of the particles are, and Plymouth uni are also doing that as well. Also, when they’re in the sediment, are they a problem when they’re there? The tyre industry at the moment—. There’s one research paper that they did a couple of years ago, and they did surveys of estuaries in different part of the world, and they found a maximum concentration of about 1 per cent of the sediment being tyre particles, which to my mind is quite a lot. And they did lab tests on various animals that would be in the sediment to see whether this concentration would affect them natively. Their findings, unsurprisingly, were that they didn't, but they missed out, I think, a key point, which is: what happens if this concentration goes higher? What if it goes to 2 per cent, 3 per cent, and what is the likelihood of that happening, as tyre wear gets generated constantly? That's one of the big questions, I think: is the risk getting higher as we go on? So, hopefully, these questions are going to be answered fairly soon.
That's it on the tyres. I don't know whether you want me to talk about other sources or not, or whether the tyres is—.
Just in terms of—. I mean, you raise a really important point on the airborne particles. A lot of the focus on microplastics has been when they're in the marine environment, and that is something we see for plastics generally. I think there's been a great success in raising public awareness about marine plastics, but, for many of these things, whether they're littered on the land or microplastics in sewage sludge applied to land, or just in soil, we don't know that they're not a problem. So, just because they're not in the sea doesn't mean to say it's definitely okay. So, we have research on ingestion of microplastics, but this is a nascent field. But fairly recent now is the concern and investigation about what we're breathing in, and I think for the tyre dust that's a very real issue, particularly, I think, as we mentioned in our paper, with the switch to electric vehicles, we're dealing with some of the tailpipe emissions of particulates, but the proportion from tyres will increase proportionally, but the absolute amount, because these vehicles tend to be heavier, will increase as well.
Thank you, Chair. You touched on, a little earlier in your evidence, that, actually, when it comes to clothing and washing machines, et cetera, and the washing process, it's not deemed a big enough issue for the manufacturers, for example, to incentivise themselves to tackle it. I think I'm correct in hearing that evidence.
That was on the pellets. That was a spill of the pellets, because there's not enough value in the pellets themselves to pick them up and put them back into the process. And, actually, they're deemed to be contaminated, so they're not, so it's more on the pellet spills we're talking about.
So, taking it more generally, then, from evidence we took earlier, there is an issue around, obviously, clothing and washing that clothing, around the microplastic debate, discussion. There's an element of more research needed for us to fully understand that. But what incentives do you understand the manufacturers of washing machines and clothing, for example, are taking to try and inform customers and incentivise them to change habits, so that we can tackle the microplastic issue?
I think, in terms of how the manufacturers are incentivising customers, very little is happening at the moment, and I think that's primarily because the industry is still getting to grips with what the issues are and also what to do about them. There's some general advice you can give to consumers, such as using liquid detergents and not being on higher spin speeds—basically, things that don't agitate the clothes any more than they need to be, because it's believed that that's one of the key reasons why the fibres release, although we're still not 100 per cent sure on that. There are contradictory papers that suggest that we still don't know quite why these fibres break off and release. So, I think, understandably, the industry don't really want to step up and give advice if they're not 100 per cent sure it's actually valid advice. The only company that I've seen do that is Patagonia in the United States, where they've been a bit more vocal about this, but they're known as an environmental brand anyway, so they wanted to take leadership. Certainly, for the textiles industry at the moment, the driving force for them is consumer perception, but that's only on the brand leaders who actually deal with the consumers directly. There's nothing at all down the line to, say, a Chinese fabric manufacturer—I'd be surprised if they even knew it was a problem. And this is one of the big issues with textiles and sorting it out—the supply chain, and how you get changes in the supply chain, whatever those might be, because it's so disparate and so nebulous.
I think part of the challenge with it is we don't yet have a standard measurement method. This is one of the recommendations in our research—so far, different laboratories have conducted tests for the rate of microfibre release using different approaches. So, what we have suggested—and this is what we understand the industry is now looking to achieve—is getting a standard test method so you can say, 'Is acrylic worse than polyester?', for example, 'Is it the nature of the construction, or is it the nature of the fabric itself?' I think once you have that standard measurement approach you can then look at policy instruments based on removing the worst performers from the market, or incentives for incentivising the best performers. So, I think for the industry at the moment they're not quite sure, in all honesty, what advice they can give.
When you say 'not quite sure', how far away are they from being sure, and is there incentive enough for them to get to that point? Because, obviously, there'll be cost pressures in getting to that point, there will be. We all know clothing is a very price-sensitive sector of the economy, and that's most probably because of us as consumers—we're always looking for a bargain, we are. So, we've identified a knowledge gap, but how big is that gap at the moment to get to this place where you can get the standards that you've talked about? Because talking about the Chinese, for example, fabric manufacturer, how can the consumer know that they're buying the right fabric if they so want to make that informed choice? Because if I walk into a shop, I haven't a clue what T-shirt A and T-shirt B and T-shirt C has gone through in the manufacturing process, let alone what I might chuck in the washing machine.
Yes, I completely agree with that. And I think you've got to take a step back and look at the fashion industry as a whole. And, as a consumer, can you even pick a garment out that you know has not had child labour, or been environmentally friendly in its construction, let alone the microplastics side? I think that the fashion industry have got a long way to go in all of those areas. So, if they haven't really established good environmental practices so that a consumer can go, 'Yeah, I'm spending £30 on a T-shirt rather than £5, and it is better for the environment'—if they can't do that at the moment, how can you do that for the microplastics side? And that's where we are at at the moment, in terms of the industry, I think.
I come from a farming community. Twenty years ago, we had BSE; all of a sudden, you had farm assurance schemes. By and large, most consumers now, when they go into a shelf, can identify the red tractor logo—for argument's sake—and buy on an informed basis; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have a similar sort of scheme. When it comes to clothing, as far as I know, there isn't that national scheme or that national standard that people, as a consumer, can choose where they want to spend their pound. Would that be desirable—to have that type of scheme? Because we seem to have got this type of problem, not just with microplastics, but the point you made about child labour, for example. And how practicable is it to bring that type of scheme forward?
Yes, it would be great to have something like that. And I think it's been tried so many times as well. You've got various labels that are bubbling around that haven't really reached consumer perception at the moment. There's even three or four organic cotton labels, so you don't even know which organic cotton label is the best one, as a consumer. So, yes, labelling would be great, but it shows how little the industry know about their supply chain, that a label hasn't actually come to the fore and is genuinely credible at the moment.
Well, the point I made to you is: is it practicable to actually do that? We can all say how wonderful it is and motherhood and apple pie. But, in reality, given the fragmentation of the clothing industry, most probably something is going to have to come from Government or policy makers to drive that sort of framework. Is it deliverable?
The standard test in the industry—there's a couple of industry groups who are trying to develop a standard test at the moment. Ultimately—and I think this is happening at the European level—there will be some kind of oversight of that. It might be that the industry test then becomes adopted as European or national standards. I think there is an incentive within the industry to get a test procedure, because, at the moment, people can't move away from one type of synthetic clothing to another because they don't know—the information isn't there. So, it's in the interests of industry to have that understanding. And people might move towards natural fibres, but, obviously, with cotton, you have trade-offs with water use and pesticides as well, so it's not a simple thing. The simple answer would be—well, it's actually not such a simple answer, but—buy fewer clothes and wear them longer. But we don't yet know, actually—
But what we don't know—and this may be different for different clothing types—is: is the rate of loss dramatic at the start and then it slows off, or, as the garment gets older, does its structural integrity decline and there's a big tailing off? So, all of those things we don't yet know.
Washing clothes less, actually, isn't that bad an idea, with technologies that we've seen coming through where the fibres are coated and therefore the clothing needs to be washed less, or it's got antimicrobial coatings and things like that. So, there are things coming to the fore that might help the issue, but nothing that's going to stop it completely. And that's one of the problems, I think.
But I think it's also just worth noting that most of the focus on the loss of microfibres from textiles has been post-consumer. So, an area that hasn't really been looked into is: what happens in the garment factories? You imagine there might be lots of airborne fibres—you know, what implications are there?
Yes, I think it's a case of the more we find out, the more we find out what we don't know.
Can I return to washing products? Washing products didn't used to have microplastics in them. So, at some stage, somebody decided to add them for good commercial reasons. Do we know when? Because, 100 years ago, they didn't have microplastics in them, did they—certainly 150 years ago. When Unilever and all these companies kicked off making the first washing products, they didn't have microplastics in them—microplastics probably didn't exist at that time. But they decided that it was commercially beneficial. Do we know when the microplastics started being added?
And the other thing you said, about 1 per cent of sediment, is that 1 per cent of top sediment, or 1 per cent of all sediment? Because, if it's 1 per cent of top sediment, it probably won't increase by very much. If it's 1 per cent of all sediment, it's only been added in, what, the last 50 or 60 years.
So, just to get the second question, actually, I'm pretty sure it was top sediment. I think it might've been the first 10 cm, or something like that.
Sorry, remind me what the first question was.
Yes. So, I think the first patents came around in the late 1980s, and they started appearing in the early 1990s and things like that. They were sort of billed as a bit of a revolutionary thing. I think they had organic versions beforehand, but they had issues with shelf life and things like that—the same issues that they're having now but they're overcoming, because they have to. So, we're sort of going back to where we were. But, yes, back then, it just wasn't even perceived as a problem, and now we are where we are because, yes, we've found that these microplastics exist in the marine environment and have come full circle.
With the retort, I mean, asbestos was meant to be a wonder substance at one time.
Yes. Like you say: the more you look, the more you find.
Yes. In terms of what's been done to reduce the amount of microplastics getting into our environment, what would you say are the headlines there? What's being done at the current time to deal with this problem?
Well, not a huge amount, I think. It's certainly not enough, and there's a lot more that could be done. On the pellets, we have a voluntary industry initiative, called Operation Clean Sweep, which has a number of best-practice guidance measures on there for people who handle this. But the problem is that it is not audited, it's not overseen in any way; there's no way of checking if anything is happening. But, for the pellets, I think there is an opportunity there for more to be done; I think there are some effective approaches that could be applied.
I think that, on the other side of it, there's not really a great deal—on the sources that we've looked at, there are no real initiatives. The pellets—the approach that we recommended for the commission on this was that you need a kind of supply-chain accreditation route, because we know what practices need to be put in place. So, you need a kind of guidance document for that. It could even be something that Welsh Government could lead on. So, you have the people who supply the largest amount of plastics—so, it could be supermarkets—they have to ensure that their whole supply chain is adhering to this best practice. That means all the way up, all the way to the converters, even to those outside Europe—it would have a global reach. This is the kind of thing—. You could look at other ways of just dealing with it at facilities in Wales, but you're not dealing with the global supply chain of it. So, I think it has to be based on the consumption of it.
Okay. So, there's a limited amount happening at the moment. In terms of legislation, is there anything that you would particularly like to see introduced in terms of legislation to deal with these matters?
In Wales, one thing you could do is artificial pitches, because on tyres, I think there's a limited amount that Wales can do on its own. It's an international market and work is progressing there. I think the same with synthetic clothing. Once we have the measurement standard, you could look at green procurement. Once you have the standards for the rate at which tyres wear, once you have the standards for the rate of loss of synthetic textiles, through green procurement, Welsh Government could say, 'We require all public bodies to adopt the most favourable options here.' I think where you could immediately start is on the infill for artificial pitches. There's no reason why Welsh Government couldn't address that on its own. So, where you have artificial sports turf, the infill between the fake grass is typically rubber crumb from old tyres.
Exactly. They get on your legs and they're often transported off. We estimate between 1 and 5 tonnes are lost from every pitch, every year. So, overall, they're not a massive source, but from an individual point source they're pretty significant. There are a lot of ways in which you can prevent the loss of these things. You have the capture, so in the changing room, as things get washed, you get the capture in drains. So, it could be that you could require—perhaps for the larger pitches, you could say, 'When new pitches are put in, we will require these capture measures', and subsequently roll this out to smaller sports pitches at schools and the like. I think that's one area where Welsh Government can take the lead.
There are definitely very simple things you can do to stop these particles getting out of artificial turf pitches. For instance, I live opposite the velodrome in Newport and they've got an artificial turf pitch there with a little stream running right next to it. There's absolutely nothing to stop anything getting from the pitch to that stream. That's an extreme example of having those things in such close proximity, but you can see it could be easily stopped as well.
It's a real challenge with the end-of-life management of these pitches as well. There are good ways of managing it at the end of life, so you're containing all of the infill and the whole pitch, but we suspect that many pitches that are lifted at the end of their life are not managed appropriately.
You said it wasn't—. I do take that it is a problem, but you said it's not a big problem. It's almost like a trade-off, isn't it? We know tyres are an environmental problem when they come to the end of their lives. I think many of us have seen pictures where warehouses have been stacked up with them and then people have just left them because they've been paid, and they've been on fire et cetera. And actually, the use in sports pitches and other types of uses is actually promoted as an environmental benefit because it's giving the tyre a second life, if you like. So, there's that balance act, isn't there? Whilst we'd like to have a zero effect—the point about Newport and the stream and everything—it's about making sure that you don't switch off the extended life that you're giving to that tyre and it becomes an environmental problem in another guise then. So, it's almost like a trade-off.
It is, and ultimately, ideally, people would be driving less. Ultimately, we want tyres that are more durable, so the treads of the tyres—. If we're looking for a circular economy approach to tyres, we want tyres that last as long as they can and we want an appropriate end-of-life process that has the lowest environmental impact as possible. Obviously, with the use in pitches, that gives a second life, so it extends the lifetime, in that sense. We're not saying, 'Don't use this as an infill.' You can use cork and sand as an infill, but in a country where it rains quite a bit, cork is particularly buoyant and gets flushed off so it's not necessarily the appropriate thing. So, really, what you want to do is to capture these things and make sure they're not lost.
Could we move on, then, to how we raise public awareness of these issues and perhaps get behaviour change? To what extent should we be concentrating on those matters? You know, it's not very easy, I don't think, to get behaviour change, really, is it? It's something that you have to work at over a period of time. But, obviously, it must be part of the picture and part of the response to these problems. Do you think there are good prospects of success for raising public awareness and getting that change?
I think it depends on the particular source. I think, on tyres, we do know that one of the key things that people look for when they buy a tyre is that they want it to last. So, obviously, part of that relates to the structure of the tyre, but a lot of it is the treadwear—the rate at which it abrades. So, we know there's a real market failure. Consumers want that information. They want to know it. When we've spoken to the tyre industry about this, they've said, 'Well, if people don't like a particular tyre, they can try a different one next time.' Now, that, to me, is not the same as having a clear view of how long—. You know, it's not a very well-functioning market. So, I think that, for tyres, once you have that information, then you can have the consumer awareness to encourage people to shift towards that, much as you have with the tyre label already, on energy efficiency.
Presumably, there would be a greater cost for tyres that last longer, or is that not necessarily the case?
I'm not sure it's the case. What we have at the moment—. There is a lack of transparency in the market, and what we hear is that people—. If you go into Kwik Fit, they will say, 'Oh, you buy this type of brand because it's synonymous with quality.' Now, I can't judge that as a consumer. It might be that this tyre from Korea actually outperforms it on many metrics, but we don't know because the information isn't there.
Yes. I think that, for the loss of pellets, there's very little that consumers can do on that because it is a supply chain issue. But if you had this supply chain accreditation, be it voluntary or subsequently mandatory, that could inform—. You might have Tesco saying, 'We have made sure that all our supply chain is accredited to this standard.' Then, people might say, 'Okay, well, I'll buy it here.' Once you get that public awareness of what can be done in the supply chain, then the consumer behaviour kicks in.
Artificial pitches: not a great deal there. And obviously, with synthetic clothing, we don't yet know what the best action is. I think more on things like the macroplastics and possibly wet wipes, and those other sources of plastic.
Yes, I think that's where the consumer action is going to be key—where, genuinely, behaviour change is the thing that needs to happen. So, as you were talking in the last session about flushing things that shouldn't go down the toilets, the wet wipes obviously cause an issue for sewage works. But, equally, they can break up and become microplastics in the marine environment and in the rivers as well, and solutions to that seem to be fairly obvious. Again, with the wider waste management of plastic, people are definitely getting more aware of this at the moment, and now would be the time to really give them good advice. Obviously, Wales is doing pretty well in recycling plastics and in giving a coherent message. That's the key thing as well: they want to know that, if you move from one authority to another, you're getting the same message about what you can and can't recycle and things like that. So, that's where the consumer action really helps.
Yes, just chasing down the bit about the black bits in the artificial pitches. Andrew, with lots of experience of playing five-a-side football and stuff on these sorts of surfaces, knows that with the current black bits that are rubber and plastic, or combinations of both—
Yes, tyre-derived rubber. So, old tyres.
So, there are definitely bits of plastic in there, but they are quite good because the bounce is even and stuff, whereas if you have sand, the bounce is all over the place. Would it be a feasible solution, say, to have some sort of water source to flush everybody down? From his extensive playing experience, he knows that these black bits get everywhere—out of the changing room, into the car. It doesn't matter how many showers you have, they go everywhere. So, wouldn't it be better to have some sort of source to stop it actually leaving the pitch?
It's difficult—you know, unless you were to check every player as they left the pitch, it is quite difficult. When it's snowing in Norway, they have a lot of problems with the infill. When it snows, they just clear all the snow off the pitch and dump it at the side, and that contains a lot of the plastic. So, there are many different ways in which it comes off. But I think within—. You have the pitch and then the wider facilities and the changing rooms—if you have the right kind of capture techniques there, possibly in the drains from the showers—. And also part of it is behaviour. It will be about making sure you dust yourself down on the pitch, if you can, before you head away.
Yes, and in Norway they have got a plan for mitigation measures. So, these mitigation measures do exist and they are proven to work, they just add a bit of cost to the pitch. That's one of the key reasons why rubber crumb infill is used anyway, because it's the lowest cost solution for producing these pitches. You can do it in many different ways. You can actually use virgin polymers, which is probably the worst of both worlds, perhaps. Although there has been a lot of talk around the potential carcinogenic properties of the rubber crumb infill, I think it's a little bit blown out of proportion, based on the research that I've read about it. But there are countries like the Netherlands that are wholesale moving away from rubber crumb because of the public perception of it and the fact that, a lot of the time, it's kids playing on these pitches, so no-one really wants to put them in any danger.
So, there are other alternatives, but none of them are really any better, other than perhaps cork, but that's got its own issues. The only other thing we found—because we did a study for FIFA, actually, on artificial turf pitches, looking at the different end-of-life options and the different properties of it, and you actually have a thing underneath called a shock pad, which, depending on how thick it is, can actually replace some of the thickness of some of the rubber crumb. Actually, that's quite a good thing because it can be left there for about 20 years or so, rather than every 10 years when the pitch needs to be renewed. But, again, that's extra cost and that doesn't tend to get used with rubber crumb infill because it pushes the cost up to using other more exotic materials. So, yes, it's a tricky balance, and, obviously, there's point before of, 'Well, we need to do something with the tyres at the end of life.'
It's an important point, though, because those little black bits, they're not that easy to dust off. They impregnate socks and shirts.
Yes, they get everywhere.
I visited a pitch in Gloucester and they'd just had a match the night before, and it had been a wet day, and that's when it all just goes everywhere. I just noticed in the changing rooms that it was all over the place, but there was no—. The cleaners there weren't told to be careful, so they were just mopping it up and then pouring it down the drain. So, I mean, it's fairly simple and obvious things, actually, but the pitch owners weren't aware of the issues. They didn't know this was a problem. So, raising awareness with whoever runs the pitch and the owners of the pitch is a really good start and fairly easy to do.
If we could move on to sustainable urban drainage systems, how significant do you think they are in terms of how we approach these issues and deal with this problem?
We've not done any actual research into SuDS in relation to plastics or microplastics, but observationally you see that plastics get captured within these schemes. I think if you can reduce the amount of overland flow, if you can reduce the rate of run-off, all things being equal you reduce the rate at which items get flushed into watercourses. I think SuDS are probably a very good thing for many other reasons beyond microplastics, in terms of tackling the urban heat island effect, biodiversity, well-being—.
Certainly one of the things we found was that no matter what you do to negate tyre wear, it's always going to happen, and it's going to be deposited on the roads and it's going to go somewhere. So, the way in which storm drains are run and where the particles are captured, you've got to do something about that. That's got to be a priority. And at the moment, any sort of storm drain—they don't actually take into account things like microplastics. It's all about capturing chemical pollutants and other sorts of heavier particles, perhaps. One of the issues we found in the research was that there are plenty of places where particles can just sediment out and then be removed.
I don't know the situation in Wales, but I suspect it's probably the same as anywhere—that the local authorities just don't have the budget to keep removing and replacing and cleaning out all of the storm drains and the places where these particles can be captured. So, they can be up to 80 per cent efficient, at best, but, when they're full, they're 0 per cent efficient. And that's if they're designed properly in the first place.
We spoke to a lot of road planners about this, again not specifically in Wales but throughout Europe, and it tends to be there are no real rules on it; it's just very ad hoc. You put the storm drains in that you think are right for the moment. I was very surprised about how little management there was of this sort of thing. I think, in the EU regulations, you just had to make sure it was environmentally sound—it was very vague—and the way it's interpreted in different countries is very different, and, again, with no focus on microplastics at all. So, one thing that should be focused on in future storm drain management is the microplastics issue, alongside that.
And, as far as you're aware, Welsh Water haven't taken those steps, aren't taking those steps, or you wouldn't know?
I wouldn't like to say either way, but I'd be surprised if they were.
Obviously, Welsh Government have a big role to play here because they have the levers—the policy levers as the well as the legislative levers. Building regulations, for example, is probably one of the areas you could consider, especially on new builds. We just talked about something relatively simple like changing rooms and drains in there to capture these microplastics. A logical argument might be that any new builds should have the type of drains that could be easily capturing these microplastics and then emptied as such. I've introduced that area in, so, do you see areas that the Welsh Government could exercise in a more profitable way to help get over this problem of microplastics, or do you believe that they are exercising their policy levers in the best way possible and, actually, as we know from the knowledge at the moment, there's not much more they could be doing at this present moment in time?
Just on the built environment, one area that's currently under the radar is where you have cavity walls that have expanding polystyrene beads as infill—how they're managed at end of life when buildings are demolished, and, obviously, these things all become microplastics in due course. In general terms, the way any foam is managed in buildings is something that's worthy of attention at the end of life.
In terms of capture in new builds, I think, certainly, it might be quite challenging. Introducing SuDS in new developments is good in principle, but I understand it's been fairly challenging in practice. So, again, anything that's requiring developers to go further in practice can often be challenging.
I'm not sure about how you would—. We haven't looked into filters on mains drainage. I'm trying to think how you might do it at a domestic level, because if it's going from the toilet, you wouldn't necessarily want to stop anything going down, so, it might be better for anything that is flushed to be captured at a later point.
We heard in evidence earlier this morning that, actually, catching at a later point—80 per cent or 90 per cent is captured already—and to take that extra 10 per cent out, most probably, cost wise, is prohibitive and not very practical. So, really, it's moving upstream, as it were, to some of the areas that Welsh Government could be influencing—public sector contracting, for example. I don't know of a private sector road commissioned in Wales, so all roads are public sector commissioned. When you talk about storm drains, for example, that's a design issue. So, does it boil down to the way those contracts are designed and tendered? Again, you might tell me that that's cost prohibitive, because, actually, the technology to put those types of drains in is going to add 50 per cent to the road bill, or whatever. So, are we in a place where this type of adaptation is cost-effective for Welsh Government to look at it via public sector procurement or, as I said earlier, the building regs? Or is it prohibitively expensive?
I think a straightforward answer to that is that we don't know. We've suggested in our latest research that more investigation is needed into those areas to understand at which point do you intervene and how cost-effective might that be. So, we haven't got a straightforward answer for that, but we have suggested that, yes, more research is needed for the roads network to understand whether you focus on urban areas. Do you focus on motorways? Do you focus on suburban areas? What are the relative costs? And it's going to vary according to the different circumstances.
Thanks. Is there anything that we can be doing to tackle plastic pollution in terms of getting an overall reduction of plastic in the environment?
Yes, I think we can—. Certainly, in line with the waste hierarchy—we're talking about all sorts of plastics—the waste hierarchy is a good place to start. I'll just reiterate the point about how the concern about plastics from the public perspective seems to be when they reach the marine environment, but, obviously, litter in our daily lives is an issue. We know how it affects people negatively, and obviously we want to—. If we're aiming towards a circular economy, we want to prevent waste in the first place. So, for things like takeaway cups, we have reusable alternatives. If you put a 25p tax on those things, I think you're going to see a substantial shift in behaviour. Plastic drinking straws, there are alternatives to those, and cotton bud sticks, stirrers—you know, all these kinds of things, and, I think, even with takeaway packaging. In my local fish and chip shop, I can now take up a reusable container, they'll put the fish and chips in that, and I'll bring it home again. I think a Cardiff pizza delivery company are now using returnable aluminium delivery trays. So, there's a lot of innovation in this space, and I think there's a place here for—. Obviously, the Treasury are looking into this in terms of using the tax system.
So, using tax is there, but is another option, with some products, simply to ban them?
Yes. Well, I think, where you have an alternative, so things like plastic drinking straws—. I mean, this is what the single-use plastics directive—. It's got a sensible list of the things that we can reasonably ban.
No, I think you've covered that pretty well there.
I was just going to say that the 5p charge for a plastic bag has changed behaviour enormously—far more than I would have thought 5p would change behaviour. I spend a lot of time watching football in local parks, and you'd rarely go into a local park without seeing several carrier bags blowing around, having to be removed from the pitch before you could start playing. Now, if you see one there, you notice it because it's so unusual. A small sum has made a huge difference. Could this happen with plastics?
I think it could happen with most single-use objects. One of the things I found out recently, when I was speaking to one of the big supermarket retailers, and they were actually very keen on this charge coming in because it levelled the playing field for them. They were actually introducing their own charge, and they really wanted to reduce consumption, but it wasn't working on their own, and it wasn't until a flat charge came in that, actually, everyone had to adhere to it and suddenly you get this massive change, and I think people are more open to it now, what with the public perception around it. So, now's as good a time as any to start talking about that.
And I think what we're seeing with takeaway cups—it's not just coffee cups; it's all sorts of sodas and colas and the like that we have—is that it's quite a confusing landscape at the moment. We have different coffee companies offering different levels of discounts or bonus stamps. You don't know how long this is going to last, whether the level will change, and also, I think, for the smallest retailers—. I was speaking to the independent coffee retailer in Cardiff Central station, and he can't offer a 50p discount in the same way that Pret A Manger can. It would be much better for him if there were a 25p tax across the board, because obviously they have to pay for the cups. They're surprisingly expensive. So, the fewer he has to give away, the better off everyone is.
What Mike has said about the plastic bag charge—. It was a relatively simple charge to introduce, because the plastic bag was understood—what you were trying to capture. Cigarettes and tobacco products are similar as well. In an earlier evidence-gathering session, I introduced the point about taxation. I suppose it's: how simple is it to capture the goods that you're looking to capture if you were to go down this route? In that session, we were looking particularly at wet wipes and things like that; you've introduced coffee cups as well. It might be simplistic, but what is a coffee cup and what isn't a coffee cup? You suddenly get into all these absurd definitions, don't you, and what's captured and what's not captured. How easy is it—and I hear what you say, Chris, about looking at this when you were at Treasury, I think you said—to actually make this part of the public policy landscape to capture these products in the tax environment, if that was the will of the Government or the legislature of the day?
The definition is always important, and I think this is why, if you're looking to address single-use plastics, you don't necessarily come up with a definition of 'a single-use plastic', but you talk about items that are of concern because of typical things like their very short lifetime in use, and others. In terms of the cups, you could say, 'Any takeaway cup filled with a hot or cold drink at the point of sale'—that should be broad enough to cover it. I think as long as you leave any legislation with sufficient flexibility to be adapted if any—
So, you don't think the definition argument and the capture argument is so complicated that it should put off this line of thinking in public policy.
Not at all, no.
It can be overcome. I presume that there aren't examples at the moment, but you could readily define that legislation as you would see fit.
I think you can, and, obviously, it's not just coffee cups; you would make sure that it is all takeaway cups. I don't see that as an impediment.
Jest i fynd yn ôl i un o'r prif bwyntiau y buaswn i'n licio—[Anghlywadwy.]—pwysleisio ydy'r syniad yma o feicroplastigau a nanoplastigau fel llygredd—hynny yw, nid jest y darnau plastig mawr rŷch chi'n gallu'u gweld. Wrth gwrs, mae'r cyhoedd yn ymwybodol nawr, ar ôl i bawb wylio Blue Planet II, fod y plastig yma rŷch chi'n gallu'i weld yn andwyol, ond mae eisiau drilio i lawr yn bellach na hynny a thrio pwysleisio bod y gronynnau bach nad ydym ni'n gallu'u gweld hefyd yno yn y dŵr, yn dod o sawl lle, a wedyn i feddwl yn ddwys am sut rydym ni'n defnyddio pob math o blastig—plastig sydd yn fawr ac yn dirywio, ond hefyd y pethau yma sydd â phlastigau bach sy'n mynd yn llai ac yn llai dros amser, a’r syniad yma bod dyfroedd ein môr ni wedi’u llygru jest fel efo unrhyw fath o lygredd arall a bod meicroplastigau yn ffynhonnell o lygredd yn ogystal. Os ydych chi'n dilyn y trywydd, a ddylem ni godi ymwybyddiaeth o hynny ymysg y cyhoedd?
Just to return to one of the main points—[Inaudible.]—is this idea of microplastics and nanoplastics as pollution—not just the big pieces of plastic that you can see. The public is aware, of course, since the advent of Blue Planet II, that these plastics that you can see are detrimental, but we need to drill down further than that and try to emphasise that these small particles that are invisible are also there in the water, coming from everywhere, and then to think intensely about how we use all kinds of plastic—plastic that is large and degrades down and that very small plastic that becomes smaller and smaller over time, and about this idea that our seas are polluted just as with any other pollutant and that microplastics are a source of pollution. So, should we raise awareness of that with the public?
Yes, absolutely. I think that the whole success of Blue Planet has been visualising what people couldn't see before—you know, they had been told that it was all there. There's the perception of the north Pacific garbage patch, which, actually, gives you the idea that there is actually this mass floating garbage patch, but that isn't the case. I think it's probably about 20 particles per metre squared or something like that. If you went there, you'd be like, 'Where is this garbage patch?'. But that's not what gets people interested in the subject and engaged with it, and, actually, 20 particles per metre squared is a lot when you're talking about marine life and how that's being affected.
So, yes, the nanoparticles are an emerging science as well, because quite literally they're quite hard to find. Up until recently, when they've been trawling, they've used fine mesh, and you obviously get this problem where the finer the mesh, the more it gets bunged up and the harder it is to actually find these things. So, they tend to have a mesh of something like 0.3 mm. Anything smaller just goes through, so our understanding of those particles of that size is beginning to be limited and our ability to sample in multiple places is also limited as well. But, yes, like you say, they only get smaller; they don't disappear. So, yes, a very good point.
As I said earlier, it's great that public awareness has been raised through concern about the marine environment, but I do sometimes wonder that, if the problem is framed as almost solely a marine plastics issue, we're then susceptible to the response, 'Well, 98 per cent of it comes from Asia. What's the point of doing anything here?'. Now, this is where you need to refocus on land-based litter, which couldn't possibly have come from China. This is stuff in our backyards. It's an everyday experience. And reiterate the focus on the waste hierarchy here—prevent single-use plastics, or any single-use item, not just plastics, if we have reusable alternatives, and focus on prevention in the first instance. But also, I think, in terms of the clean-up, beach cleans are much more effective than going out to the north Pacific. You can drive up in a transit van, load it up—much easier.
And also to add to the point on the 'blame China' attitude, China's industry, a lot of it, is based on exporting to the western world, to us, so a lot of their plastic is coming over here anyway and the big problem is that we have no way of dealing with it, especially given the fact that we can't export it back to them. So, that's one of the big things we've got to deal with: how can we actually deal with that now?
Getting back to tyres, the way that people drive—obviously, if we had a more integrated transport system and less road use, that would certainly help, but one thing I just wanted to ask you about was the idea that we might have many more 20 mph speed limits in our inner urban areas, because those who are campaigning would say that it's more environmentally friendly that you tend to have a more constant speed, less braking, less acceleration, than if you have a 30 mph limit, because obviously, in an urban environment, you have to stop very regularly, and there are different obstructions to prevent speed in any event. So, would you support the view that having those 20 mph limits would actually help with these issues of plastic being contained in tyres and then getting into the environment, because you wouldn't have that harsh braking and acceleration?
I strongly suspect it would, because I think if you have harsh cornering or acceleration or just turning the tyres, even when you're parking as well—my suspicion is, yes, that would increase the rate of wear. So, yes, this is an additional case, I feel, for 20 mph zones. As someone who cycles lots, and my nine and 12-year-old children cycle as well, I'm hugely in support of 20 mph zones and their enforcement. The difference between 20 mph and 30 mph is so significant when you've got these big, heavy things going past you, and what that does is that encourages more people to cycle, so you get this virtuous movement there. So, I think, for all sorts of reasons, they're a very good thing.
The problem, though, is, if you introduce speed bumps, does that actually reduce the amount of impact tyres are going to have, or does that increase it, because not everyone takes the speed bumps at the proper speed, do they?
I don't know. It might have a different effect there.
Ie, a mynd nôl i'r busnes ailgylchu plastig, roeddech chi'n sôn ynglŷn â'r hierarchaeth yma ynglŷn â sut rydym ni'n gwaredu plastig. Wel, tan y blynyddoedd diweddaraf yma, yn Abertawe, er enghraifft, roeddem ni'n gallu ailgylchu pob math o blastig—plastig mawr, caled, plastig bach, meddal a oedd yn plygu, ac ati. Nawr, yn y misoedd diwethaf yma, achos bod y system lle nad ydym ni'n gallu allforio'r plastig yma nôl i Tsieina, wrth gwrs, nid ydym ni'n gallu ailgylchu unrhyw blastig sydd ddim yn galed. Hynny yw, mae'r plastig meddal ac ati yn mynd mewn i'r bag du yn lle hynny. Pa waith y dylai gael ei hybu, ŷch chi'n credu, inni allu mynd nôl i'r sefyllfa lle'r oeddem ni'n gallu ailgylchu, neu o leiaf roedd pobl yn eu cartrefi yn gallu anfon pob plastig un a oedd yn dod i mewn i'r tŷ, yn sylfaenol? Roeddem ni'n gallu eu hanfon nhw allan yn y bagiau pinc i gael eu hailgylchu. Nawr, dim ond y plastig caled rydym ni'n gallu anfon mas.
Yes, to go back to this issue of recycling plastic, and you mentioned this hierarchy regarding how we get rid of plastic, well, up until these most recent years in Swansea, for example, we could recycle all kinds of plastics—large plastics, hard plastics, small, soft plastics that were pliable, and so forth. Now, in these past few months, because of the system whereby we can't sent this plastic back to China, of course, we can't recycle any plastic that isn't hard. That is, soft plastic and so on has to be chucked into the black bag instead. So, what work should be promoted, do you think, for us to be able to return to the situation where we could recycle or people at home could, at least, send out all domestic plastics? We could put them in the pink bags to be recycled. Now, it is only the hard plastic that can be sent out.
I think one of the key problems we've had—well, that we still have—is that, in the UK, we don't have proper extended producer responsibility for packaging. So, producers only pay about 10 per cent of the end-of-life costs of their packaging, and there's no incentive at the design stage for them to think too much about the end of life, to design something they know can be recycled. So, that is changing under the revised waste framework directive, which we've signed up to. That requirement will come into place for greater coverage of costs, up to 100 per cent of the end-of-life costs to be covered. So, that, I think—we'll then see a big difference there, because the financial incentives will be aligned with the practice we'd want to see.
From a Wales point of view as well, we worked with the Waste and Resources Action Programme recently on looking for a route-map for plastic in Wales, and one of the things we looked at was how do we maintain the value of this plastic in Wales. And one of the key things we think Wales should be doing is incentivising industries to spring up, essentially, to add value to the plastic. So, not necessarily recycling it into another product, but, when it goes out of Wales, it is a product in itself—it's plastic flake that can be sold directly to manufacturers to be used, so you're adding value to it. That's one of the key things to do. And, as Chris said, obviously, as well, it does come down to design. So, we don't want to have 10 different kinds of plastic in our recycling, we want to have two or three different polymers, you know what they are, and people can easily recognise them. And that only comes about when the manufacturers actually take a bit of responsibility and talk to the recyclers about what is feasible and not just put products on the market with no thought to that.
Ac yn y pen draw, rwy'n cymryd, os oes rhaid defnyddio plastig, dim ond y plastigau hynny sy'n gallu cael eu hailgylchu a ddylai gael eu defnyddio, achos mae yna nifer o blastigau nawr lle'r ydym yn gwybod yn y lle cyntaf nad yw'n bosibl eu hailgylchu nhw ta beth. Pa fath o ganllawiau sydd angen eu rhoi yn eu lle i wneud yn siŵr ein bod ni, yn y dyfodol, ddim ond yn cynhyrchu plastig sydd yn gallu cael ei ailgylchu?
And, eventually, I take it that, if we need to use plastic, it's only those plastics that can be recycled that should be used, because there are many plastics now that we know, in the first instance, there's no possibility of recycling them. So, do you think we need some guidance in place to make sure that we, in future, only produce plastic that has the ability to be recycled?
That's the question we get asked quite a lot at the moment: how would you define 'recyclability'? And it's definitely a difficult one. We tend to think of it in a different way: rather than incentivise or try to get people to make things recyclable, come back to the other end and say things need to have recycled content. So, once you push from that direction, things obviously start looking more circular, rather than saying things are recyclable. But, is actually going to happen in practice? So, that's how I would deal with that.
Well, if there are no more questions, I thank you very much for coming along today. You've been very informative and you've certainly given us both a lot of food for thought and a lot of other questions to ask to other people. So, thank you very much.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:52 a 11:05.
The meeting adjourned between 10:52 and 11:05.
Can I welcome Imogen Napper and David Jones to the committee? Thank you for coming along. Do you want to make a short opening statement, or are you ready to go straight to questions?
I'm very happy for you to carry on.
Thank you. Can you tell us what you think that the main sources of microplastic pollution are, and the extent to which microplastics, including microfibres, are a problem?
So, in my research, I've looked particularly at microfibres coming from clothing, and we did past research that showed that for a typical wash of acrylic clothing, up to 700,000 fibres can come off our clothes, go down the drain, then potentially make their way into the sewerage system and then into our oceans. A large proportion will get caught by the sewerage systems, but then if they're applicated onto land as fertiliser, that's another problem entirely as well.
Well, they're not going to disappear, are they? So, if they don't go out into the sewerage system and out into sea, and they get caught, they're going to go somewhere else.
They're going to go somewhere else unless they're burnt. It's predicted that all of the plastic that's ever been made is still in the environment today, unless it's been burnt.
I think the largest sources of microplastics—we've got to be very careful that we don't just focus on microfibres. In terms of particles, then, quite possibly, it's the largest source, but in terms of weight and mass and impact on the environment, there are lots of other sources. For example, an average of around about 68,000 [correction: 63,000] tonnes of plastic comes from tyres in the United Kingdom and gets washed down the drain every year. The research that I've done shows that most of the microplastics are actually secondary microplastics that have been broken down from larger objects, having been in the ocean for a long time. So, that's stuff that has not necessarily appeared from land sources in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd, a hefyd diolch i'r ddau ohonoch chi am y papurau ymchwil rydych chi wedi eu cyflwyno ymlaen llaw. Yn amlwg, mae yna gryn dipyn o waith wedi cael ei wneud yn y maes ymchwil i mewn i feicroblastigau a nanoblastigau, yn enwedig y papurau sydd yn dod o Brifysgol Plymouth—safon bendigedig yn y fan hyn. Dau gwestiwn, efallai. Pa mor gynhwysfawr ydy'r wybodaeth sydd gyda ni am raddfa llygredd meicroblastigau rŵan, achos rydym ni yn trio symud i ffwrdd o jest meddwl am blastig fel y darnau yna rydym yn gallu eu gweld ond, wrth gwrs, yn sôn am y microblastigau a'r nanoblastigau nad ydym yn gallu eu gweld sydd yn achosi llygredd yn y dŵr, yn y môr ac yn ein hafonydd ni? 'Lle mae'r bylchau yn ein gwybodaeth ni?' ydy'r cwestiwn cyntaf.
A'r ail gwestiwn ydy, wrth gwrs, mae gwaith ymchwil i mewn i ronynnau ar y tir sydd yn deillio o losgi carbon—PM10s a PM2.5s ac ati—rydym ni'n gwybod pan ydym yn cymryd y rheini i mewn i'n hysgyfaint bod yna drosglwyddiad wedyn i gylchrediad y gwaed, ac mae'r gronynnau yna yn gallu glanio i fyny yn ein calonnau ni, ac yn effeithio ar iechyd pobl felly. Hynny yw, y gronynnau bach iawn yna sydd yn deillio o garbon sydd wedi llosgi, ac rydym yn eu hanadlu nhw i mewn. Nawr, wrth gwrs, yn enwedig pan ydych chi'n sôn am deiars, mae yna gyd-ddigwyddiad felly rhwng y gronynnau bach yna sydd yn deillio o losgi carbon, achos mae yna gymysgedd yn fanna efo plastig o deiars. Pa waith ymchwil sydd yn mynd ymlaen i weld y gronynnau bach iawn o blastigau yma—nanoplastics, ac ati? A ydyn nhw yn cael yr un effaith arnom ni fel pobl, ar ein hiechyd ni—hynny yw, ein hysgyfaint ni neu, yn benodol, ein cylchrediadau gwaed—yn union yr un effaith ag y mae gronynnau rydym yn eu hanadlu i mewn sydd yn deillio o losgi carbon yn ei gael? Pa fath o waith sydd yn mynd ymlaen? Mae'n swnio ychydig bach yn gymhleth, ond mae o'n bwynt pwysig. Diolch.
Thank you, Chair, and thank you, both, for the research papers that you submitted beforehand. Clearly, a great deal of work has been done into research of microplastics and nanoplastics, especially the papers that have come from the University of Plymouth, these are of a very high standard. Two questions. How comprehensive is the knowledge that we have regarding the scale of microplastics pollution, because we're trying to move away from just thinking about plastics as those bits that we can see, but also talking about those microplastics and nanoplastics that we can't see that cause pollution in the seas and in our rivers? Where are the gaps in our knowledge? That's my first question.
And the second question is, of course, research into land-based particles that derive from burning carbon—PM10s and PM2.5s et cetera—we know that when we inhale those then they can get into the blood circulation, and those particles can end up in our hearts and impact human health, therefore. That is, those very small particles that derive from carbon that's been burnt and that we inhale. Now, of course, especially when you were talking about tyres, there is a coincidence between those small particles that derive from burning carbon mixed in with plastic from tyres. What research is being undertaken to look at those very small particles—nanoplastics, et cetera? Do they have the same impact on us as people—on our health, that is, our lungs, especially, and blood circulation—as particles that we breathe in that are derived from burning carbon? What kind of work is going on? I know it's a complex question, but it's important. Thank you.
Do you want me to start?
I can quickly start, because, at Plymouth university, we're working on a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs project that was awarded this year. And we're looking, particularly, at the sources of plastic going into the marine environment, and one of the main sources that we're looking at is tyre particles. We're finishing that project in April, so it will be very lucky and it will be great to show you the results soon. We're also looking at fibres and the sources of fibres that will be going into the ocean, and we need to consider the airborne particles. And there is a scope and a research gap looking at how much we are inhaling and whether that is going to impact our health.
In terms of the scale as predicted, about 300 million tonnes of plastic is made every year; about 8 million tonnes is going into oceans. Some past researchers—I think from Manchester University—showed that 99 per cent of the plastic in the ocean in not visible because it's sinking, and we need look more at the transport of plastic, where it's going, the vertical distribution, to see what the effects are within that ecosystem.
To answer your first question, which was how comprehensive is the knowledge gap, or how comprehensive is our knowledge and where are the gaps, the problem with all of these things is that there is huge problem and few scientists actually looking at it. And, generally, science looks at quite small areas of knowledge, because that's the way that research goes, and I'm sure that Imogen would agree. So, that's the problem.
So, as a result of that, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. My plea to every single organisation that I ever speak to is that science is fundamental. The GESAMP papers—which is the group of experts on marine pollution—clearly, comprehensively say that two of their five challenges—. The first one is the requirement for more science, and the third one is the requirement for more engagement around the public community. So, that's the big problem.
The second question, which was about land-based particles and what's being burnt and tyres—I think you've also got to address not only the airborne plastics, which are bad, but all of the various pathways that plastics get into us, but not necessarily just the plastics. We do know now that small—tiny, tiny—nanoparticles can go through the gut wall straight into the bloodstream. But also even those larger ones that are carrying toxins—and I'm sure people have spoken, probably, previously—. And those toxins, the endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are getting into our bodies and that's what's really causing the damage. The scale of the problem is quite vast.
Okay. Thank you, Chairman. Thank you for your evidence so far. Imogen, you touched on the point—but it's a question for both of you—that your research has been looking at fabrics and clothing. I think you said 700,000 come off a particular garment in the first wash. I mean, that seems a lot. It might not be a lot; I don't know, as such. And, actually, that would be helpful, if you'd measure that—is that a lot or not—for the simple lay person. But, more importantly, from previous evidence we're understanding that clothing is an issue when it comes to microplastics. The machines, obviously, that do the washing are part of that problem and how much they can capture or not, as the case may be. What promotional activity or work has been done by the clothes manufacturers or the machine makers to better inform consumers about what action they can take to try and solve, be part of the solution to, this problem? Or is it an area that they just haven't gone into? Because, as I said, previous evidence has indicated there's a knowledge gap in this particular area.
This is exciting, because this is my next bit of research. So, we're testing different inventions that the consumer can buy that promotes that they can capture the fibres, like the Cora Ball or the guppy bag. So, the guppy bag is a mesh bag and you would put your clothes into it and then you put your clothes in the bag into the washing machine. It states that it will collect all of the fibres—they won't go through the waste water. The Cora Ball, it looks like a cactus, a circular cactus, and it's got little spinacules that come off it and it promotes that it can capture the fibres in those spinacules. And then we're also testing different inventions that would be put into the washing machine itself. So, we'd have to remove the lint from those inventions like we would from a tumble dryer.
I think it's created a lot of really positive discussion, that plastic is getting into our marine environment from ways that we wouldn't have typically considered before, like microbeads in facial scrubs or from just washing our clothes. The 700,000 fibres was from a typical clothes wash of a full load, but, you know, that shocked me—we went through the maths again and again and again— because it's a huge number. How much, actually, makes its way into the marine environment is something we still need to do research on, looking at how much is caught by the sewage treatment works. But it is predicted that a large majority will still go through, just because the number is so high.
You've just said 'a typical wash'. Is that a typical wash for an individual, a typical wash for the nuclear family of four, or a larger family?
About 6 kg, which is the average in the UK.
Given that I've got four kids, I'm well over that average. I'm multiplying the 700,000, I am. [Laughter.] So, given that the previous evidence has indicated a knowledge gap, you recognise the knowledge gap, hence your research in this particular area.
And you've identified certain solutions, but those solutions do need more work to be done on them.
Yes. As David said, it's a huge problem, and there are many different solutions to the problem. Imagine it like a jigsaw, and each solution is like a jigsaw piece. So, the microbeads in facial scrubs are almost easy, because we just ban them, we just get rid of them. Getting rid of clothes is a bit more tricky, because we all wear clothes and there are other ethics that go with it, especially with cotton and how much water it uses. I think the most positive thing is how much discussion it's creating and how people are almost becoming their own scientists and looking at whether they can buy these inventions or wash their clothes differently so that they shed fewer fibres.
No, I think that the important thing is that we're now discussing this, and, as Imogen said, there are very many issues. I remember when I found out that fleeces, the warming garments, were made from recycled plastic bottles, I was delighted. I thought, 'How sustainable; it can't be any better.' And then, in the next two years, three years later, somebody said to me, 'Well, that's really bad, you can't use that', and I said, 'But I like it. It's really good.' And the technical fibres that we make that are so much better than cottons and wools and flax and all these other things are very, very good. So, the solution is not to ban those, not to go back to cotton, but to think of ways, as we're doing here, to actually manage it. In the same way that we want our cars, but we have to manage the amount of carbon and carbon dioxide that that throws up into the atmosphere. So, it's a balance, obviously, between environmental, social and economic needs.
In earlier evidence, we had Welsh Water in, and they were saying about their treatment plants, if you like, and the industrial process, the capture process, and Steve gave the evidence that said that about 80 to 90 per cent of microplastics are captured at the moment, they are. Actually, the practicalities of getting up to 100 per cent aren't just economically viable to get up there. Would you agree with that? He was talking of a figure, just on his side of the business, of about £1 billion, which I think he talked of.
I've spoken with Southern Water, because that's where I live, and I've been on the same stage as they have, and they have issues at the moment, because, obviously, the sludge that they get through—this is another issue; it keeps on growing heads—is that the sewage plant sludge, which is everything and includes all the microplastics, is then used as an agricultural treatment and fertiliser. And they would openly admit that they don't know actually at this moment in time how much is in there. I said, 'Well, I can certainly help you out, in that it's going to be the plastics that sink.' So, non-contaminated PET [correction: PP] and PE will float. So, it's probably going to be your polystyrenes, your non-expanded polystyrenes—that's not good—and your PVCs—that's also not good. And they are still working on that, and that's an area, I think, that also needs to be covered. If we are going to use this on fields, we've got to know what it is.
It's not that we might be using it on fields; we are using on fields at the moment. So, from that area, there is still more work to be done, i.e. the processing side of it. You believe that there is considerable work to be done in that area to bring plant up to specification, to be part of a greater outtake of the plastics.
I do, indeed. And I think—. Where I live—because we're in Portsmouth, and that area of Langstone Harbour and Chichester Harbour is a very low lying area and it's a very old sewage water treatment system, not designed for the millions of people that we now have in those areas, and so every time there's a flood event, the only option they have, so that they have to stop Portsmouth or Chichester from flooding, is actually to open the sluice gate and just hope that they can catch everything in a 6 mm grid. Now, that's not a good solution, and, you know, I've had various fights in newspapers with Southern Water when I go on to my local beach and find all this stuff, and they say, 'Well, it's an old system.' And my answer will be, 'Well, the £375 million profit you made last year you might've used to update it.' I can get a little bit vocal sometimes.
But, surely, the position is that if their sewerage system is that old, when they put that sewerage system in, we didn't have microplastics in a whole range of things, so it wasn't built for the system that we're dealing with at the moment.
I quite agree, sir. It's like trying to drive trucks through some of the villages in Wales and in England.
The other question that I keep coming back to with different people is washing products. It's a recent phenomenon to add microplastics to washing products. Why can't we just ban them?
Are you talking as in laundry detergents or facial scrubs?
All of them. Facial scrubs—we used to use soap, and washing powder used to be washing powder. We've had huge changes, maybe creating more efficient material, but we've thrown plastic in there to make it more efficient.
Plastic's so cheap and it really benefits our lives. It's almost too good and its success has become such a negative because we're just making so much of it for our own convenience. I think it's a lot like the microbeads in the facial scrubs—most consumers don't know that they could have been washing their face with tiny plastic particles; I used to use them and I had no idea. It's only when we did some research and we found that there could be up to 3 million tiny plastic particles in one bottle that it created this huge public awareness storm, and it was really exciting because, again, it created a lot of discussion, and that's what facilitated a ban in cosmetic products. But I agree it needs to be a ban for all products that contain plastic particles that could have natural alternatives like sugar or salt, especially if it's for abrasion.
I'm not aware of plastic products being put into washing powders. That's new information for me. I'm not sure why you would.
I was talking about just general washing materials. You don't think there are any in washing powders, then. Because, from what people have been telling us, almost everything that is used in terms of washing was having microplastics added to them. You're saying washing powders are not one of them.
I'm not aware of that. If it is, it's something that's not something that I've read about. It would seem a very strange thing to put into washing powder.
Well, up until a week ago, I thought it was a very strange thing to put into a whole range of things, and I thought that tyres were made out of vulcanised rubber.
They once were, sir.
It is such a minefield though. It's been put in so many products, like toothpaste, and dentists were saying that microplastic in toothpaste is completely silly because it just gets stuck between the tooth and the gum and you're more prone to gum infection. It's even being put into suncream and glitter. Glitter is my bugbear, because glitter, at the end of the day, is plastic.
Yes. In terms of what's currently being done, we've touched on this, but how would you characterise what is being done at the moment to respond to these issues and to try and reduce the amount of microplastics in our environment?
Do you want me to start? I can start on this one.
I've been doing this now for 10 years. When we made the film, A Plastic Ocean—we started 10 years ago—very little was being done and I was speaking to audiences of six people. Now, the engagement with the general public and with Government and local governments has changed. My issue, if I have one, is the lack of strategic planning. So, the things that are being done are all, in my view, piecemeal and not joined up. So, for example, the decision to ban microbeads was a good reaction, it was a good thing to do, but almost a response to, 'The Government has to be seen to be doing something'—possibly slightly cynical, and I apologise, but—.
So, I think there is a need, in order to respond to the issues, to develop a more strategic thinking process that looks at science, that looks at education, that looks at innovation, that looks at participation and engagement, and also ultimately puts in legislation to put in some of those measures and make them work. That's where I think we're lacking on the response to the issues. So, there's good piecemeal stuff being done, good science being done, lots of organisations, but unless they all have a co-ordinated strategy, I don't think it's going to have the impact that it should have in a short enough space of time.
I'd say my two passions, which are keeping research going and education—. Because research is investigating the unknown, and, from getting those answers, we're able to make more informed decisions, whether that's industry, consumers or Government, about how we can make better decisions to benefit the health of our oceans. And then I'd also say education, especially for young children. I really believe that it should be compulsory to learn about plastic pollution in primary school and secondary school, because it is not us that are going to see the main effects of this issue; it's them, and the future generations. There's research to show that they really carry the baton and that they are so passionate about the ocean and keeping it clean, and that they are the ones who are lecturing their parents. So, education and research.
Yes, okay. Notwithstanding what you said, David, in terms of not having a piecemeal approach, are there any particular pieces of legislation that you would like to see as part of the overall strategy to deal with these matters? Would you—
I'm a great believer in extended producer responsibility. The system worked very well in Germany when it was introduced in 1991. I have had meetings with PlasticsEurope, and I have had meetings with the British Plastics Federation. As I'm sure you can imagine, trying to get an interview with the heads of both of those organisations when you're me is quite difficult. [Laughter.] For some reason, they were reluctant to talk to me. But, I do think that if you are going to put in legislation, it needs to be substantial and it needs to make sure that the funding that goes into waste management and to change the behavioural processes that we've currently got comes from a source that is making a profit out of this.
Imogen said that there are 300 million tonnes. Well, that's true, but our latest figure actually is 335 million. The industry has increased by 6 per cent in two years. It's six per cent a year. It's 335 million. That's the weight of the population of the planet, just to put it into perspective. I think that they have a responsibility, just like an oil company has a responsibility for not polluting the atmosphere, just like anybody else. Their excuse, I'm afraid—and I would say this to their faces—that they are not the ones who put it into the environment and that they just make it, is unacceptable.
Absolutely. There are some things, obviously, that the Welsh Government might do. I mean, education, I guess, is an obvious example. Have you given much thought to that sort of cross-over in terms of what the UK Government might do and what the Welsh Government might do? Obviously, we are particularly interested in what the Welsh Government could take forward and how important that would be in terms of the overall challenges.
My personal view of Michael Gove's document that came out and that said, 'We're going to solve all these issues by 2042', is too little, and too late and too slow. Actually, I'm encouraged that you're having this committee to address these issues, which is lacking. The problems are the same whether they are in Wales or in England or in America or, actually—although it's on a slightly different scale—somewhere in India. This is a global issue, so there has to be cross-fertilisation.
Interestingly, I was speaking to Penny Mordaunt a few weeks ago, and she was saying that they are now investing, or looking at investing, in waste management in overseas areas because that's the waste that's coming on to our shorelines and that's the waste that's putting endocrine-disrupting chemicals into children. So, I think, yes, there's got to be some cross-over. I don't know where that would come from.
I agree that there needs to be standardisation and that that needs to be international. Other countries that may be lacking in support or money, we need to use our expertise to help them. I know there's a lot of discussion at the moment about a single-use plastic tax. It sometimes takes decisions like that—really hard-hitting decisions—to make an impact. I know that the 5p bag charge in the UK reduced bag usage by 80 per cent. But, when it got first announced, some people were a little bit hesitant about it, saying, 'Oh, why should I have to pay 5p for a bag?' But now, people feel empowered and they know why they have to pay 5p, and it’s a very common occurrence that you see people juggling their shopping out of the shops rather than having to buy one. So, I think that making decisions like that is very important.
If I could just add one more point, sorry. As I said, this whole issue—. If you were to boil it down into two main areas, one is a behavioural process: behavioural change, cultural change that needs to happen; the other is a waste-management issue. The lack of any strategic direction on waste management at central Government level, I think, is a major flaw in the process, certainly in England. You can go from one local authority to another, one will take a certain thing and recycle it, and the other one won't. That is ludicrous. That is inefficient, and ludicrous and not good for the environment or the economy. It doesn't make sense. So, I'm not sure exactly how it runs in Wales, but centrally managed strategic—
Centrally managed strategic planning and waste management has to happen if it's going to work.
Okay, thanks for that. In terms of raising awareness and getting behaviour change, is there anything in particular that you'd highlight, in terms of what should be happening that isn't happening at the moment?
Getting people to the beach and just reconnecting with the ocean. Because when people go and see the issue, they're so much more likely to want to make a change. Getting schoolchildren down there, doing beach cleans, so that they realise that this is a big problem and it's happening on the beaches around them locally.
I stated a thing called the Big Microplastic Survey about three or four months ago and it is the basis of research and is a citizen science project that not only gathers data, so it gets people to gather the data—I mentioned right at the very beginning that there's not enough scientists, so it's getting people to gather the data—but one thing that's come out of it is the engagement.
Now, my research is showing that people will sit on a beach surrounded by microplastic particles, because they can't see it. There is an invisibility with microplastics and people don't care, because they can't see it and they don't see it affects them, which is why I'm finding that the stuff that I'm doing now is quite interesting, because people are saying, 'I've never seen that little plastic thing. I thought it was an egg or I thought it was such and such. What's this?' 'This came from a sewerage plant.' 'Really?' 'Yes.' So, that's important.
Engagement and education are very—. We tend to look at traditional ways of education through schools and things like that, but, I think, we have to be smarter now. This is the twenty-first century. We have to engage with the social media side of life. Most of the youngsters—. I read an article, which was quite appalling, the other day, that said the vast majority of young people under the age of 21 get their news from Facebook. But at least it's not Fox, I suppose. [Laughter.] So, I think, when we're educating and engaging, that is how we've got to be smart and we've got to get to a new twenty-first century method of communication.
Okay, good. Final question from me. In terms of sustainable urban drainage schemes, how significant are those in tackling these challenges, do you think?
Do you mean drainage schemes like roads?
Yes, we've got Welsh Water as the water company in Wales and they've taken forward what they call RainScaping, which creates a green environment in a local area to soak up surface water, hold it, and then discharge it when appropriate. Obviously, it has many benefits beyond the environmental benefits, but, obviously, we're particularly concerned with how it will help the challenge of dealing with these microplastics.
We have historic, Victorian drainage systems and it's been a blessing for us through our industrial development over the last century or two, but it is an issue.
It's interesting, because I mentioned earlier the figure of about 68,000 [correction: 63,000] tonnes of car tyre rubber or plastic that comes off in the UK—that's 1.5 million tonnes in the US, so they have a much bigger problem—but in Holland, it's only 17,000 FootnoteLink. Now, the reason for that—. Okay, part of the reason is they don't have as many cars and a lot of bikes, but the other reason is that the road design is completely different. It's got an asphalt that is a lot wider, which actually picks up particles. The downside of that is that you have to clean it out, because, otherwise, it becomes a slippery surface. But it catches all the rubber. They then clean the roads every 12 months, filter out the water, take out the plastic and, therefore, they don't put it into the waterways. That's not something I'm suggesting we can do here, because the money is just not there, but that's the sort of innovation that we should be looking at. If we're going to start upgrading Victorian processes, don't just replace it with a plastic pipe, but think about how we can also change the way we do things. It also makes the roads a lot quieter, by the way.
We don't actually know the true effect of how much we're polluting the ocean from these drainage schemes, but the DEFRA project that we're working on, an element of that is looking into that. So, hopefully, we'll have some results by early next year.
I think John touched on the question that I was going to ask around policy and what Welsh Government, potentially, could do with the suite of options that they've got available. And I agree entirely with the point that you said, David: it does need global action, it's not just Wales on its own. But, we can be exemplars of good practice, we can. Welsh Government do have abilities to influence building regs, for example, on new builds, and this place, obviously, introduced—I think we were the first in the UK on the plastic bag charge. I can remember it coming before the Petitions Committee as one of the first things when I was here on the Petitions Committee, back in 2007-08, I think it was.
With the plastic bag charge, it was relatively simple for people to visualise what was happening, because most people could picture a plastic bag in the trees, or in the gutter, or something like that, and whilst there was an element of resentment there, people actually got what the benefit was going to be. The very point that you made, David, about you sitting on a beach, and you might have got these things around you but you don't know it, makes that sort of tax/levy that much harder to sell. How practical do you think it would be to introduce such a levy or tax—call it what you will—to this issue? And what sort of impact do you think it might make on that behavioural change? Because, you talk about the manufacturers creating the products, but they are creating the products because there is demand for the products, there is, isn't there? So, you do need to create that behavioural change as well.
So, really, there are three things in there. One is about what Government can use in their suite of options, and building regs to me would seem a logical one. Two: how simple in your view would it be, and how effective would it be, to bring in a tax or levy on single-use plastics? And then, three: would it have the behavioural change that you believe or, should I say, I believe, it potentially could have?
I believe, with the plastic tax, that it can be done, but then there are discussions on how much, and would you be segregating certain members of the community. I know that when people were discussing banning single-use straws, then a large majority of the disabled community and the elderly were saying, 'Well, I need a straw for my drinks so I can actually have the drink itself.' So, we need to be careful about that.
But it's getting to such a point where we're using plastic for our own convenience. Do we need five straws in our cocktail? Do we really need to buy five carrier bags when we go shopping? Can we take the tote bags, or reuse the ones that we already have? I think that as long as a tax goes with education, then that's how it's going to be really effective and that's how it's going to have to work.
And in terms of behaviour change, like I said, it's a huge jigsaw and there are going to be so many different elements to it. I think there's confusion, in that people aren't aware of how quickly or how slowly plastic can break down into these microplastics, or what even happens to it. And there are so many different sources, it can be really confusing for the general public. So, I think the general public just need that greater understanding as well.
But, just before David comes in there, you've used the analogy several times about the jigsaw being the thing we should look at. In our design of the jigsaw, or our completion of the jigsaw, are we merely on the corners, or are we quite some way in to the infill and the end?
I believe it depends on what's popular in the public domain and what people know. So, people know carrier bags, people know the facial scrubs and microbeads. People understand washing clothes. So, at the moment, I feel like the public—and we're focusing on things that are common in our everyday life, and then, when people start becoming more accustomed to pollution as a whole, we can start focusing and start doing more research, looking at the less common items.
With regard to building regs, I'm not really sure. Most of the stuff that happens in building regs is a long-term plastic product, PVC, or whatever it is, window frames, and that's possibly not an issue. Could you put it into a drainage system so that you have some sort of trap, so that, for example, all toilets have a trap, because people have a tendency to throw these cotton bud sticks into the loo, or the wipes into the loo, rather than using the bin? Possibly. I'm not really sure.
In earlier evidence, just to give a bit of background on it, people were talking to us about, obviously, changing rooms and municipal sports pitches, et cetera, where, basically, you come off the artificial pitches and you just wash down, and it just goes straight down the drainage system it does, then. There are drains that you can put in, which seem to be relatively inexpensive, that could catch it and obviously then be emptied periodically in a safe way as such. So, I wouldn't say that you could retrofit, although that might be desirable depending on the cost, but surely, building regs would govern new builds, and public procurement as well, then. Those are levers that potentially could influence and have a long-term effect in the reduction of these plastics.
Absolutely. Within drainage systems now, we probably should have some sort of process of filtering out anything other than natural waste, and that's perfectly doable, and I agree that we wouldn't want to retrofit that.
In terms of a tax or a levy on microplastics, the bags worked. Unfortunately, the UK Government, when we put it in in England, decided that it was only on establishments that had 250 people working there, and various other different claims, and it worked well. It could have worked better. I'd have liked to see 50p, but that's my personal view, quite frankly, because I don’t think you need them. I haven't used one for six years.
But putting a tax, a levy, on microplastics and targeting it is quite difficult. The majority of the stuff that turns up on your beach has come from land at some stage, but probably not from Wales, and it's probably been in the ocean—by the time it's got to about 1 mm, or up to 5 mm, which defines microplastics, I suppose—for about 20 years. So, actually, one of the biggest problems we've got is finding sources and pathways. Where did it come from? Who's responsible? Where can we—not apportion blame, sorry, but apportion responsibility for actually leaking it?
Nurdles are a case in point. There are millions and billions of nurdles, pre-production pellets, that have only come from the plastics industry. So, if you're going to tax or levy, I think that levy will inevitably be passed on to the consumers, but this is where the extended producer responsibility comes in. The German model, which has been in place now since 1991, works very well. There is an economic case to put take-back schemes in supermarkets. I was talking about it in 2010. You could actually work out the cost. Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, your water bottles, is worth around about £300 a tonne on the open market. So, you could work out how much it is, and there's an economic case for people to go to your shop. But I think if you're going to put a tax or a levy on it, then that needs to be an extended producer responsibility tax or levy, because you just cannot say where it's come from.
So, what you're saying is: it's not at the point of the coffee cup sale, more at the point of manufacture that it should be levied, on the manufacturer, who ultimately would pass it on to the point of sale in the production cost, but the administration of it would be far better in the factory, as it were, where it's being produced, rather than, obviously, at the point of sale, at the counter where you're ordering your coffee, for example, or taking your straw et cetera.
Correct. And that process, in Germany, certainly pays for the majority of the recycling that goes on. There is a business there as well, because the recyclers make money out of what they collect. That is paid for, ultimately, by the consumers, but by the extended producer responsibility process that they have.
Now, behavioural change, which was your third point, in terms of microplastics is very difficult. I've done research, I've done interviews and analysed those interviews with key stakeholders, people from the Environment Agency, people from Natural England, people who own large estates with big swathes of beaches that have 5,000 cars on them every day in the summer, and this invisibility issue is something that I've not got my head round yet. I'm hoping to be working with the Chichester Harbour Conservancy to do something on this, because if people can't see it, they don't care. They care about the fact that there are piles of plastic and bottles around them. Sometimes they'll ignore that as well, which is just quite bizarre. So, the awareness campaign, the engagement, needs to be well thought out and very strategic and, like I say, involve participation, innovation and education in order to make it happen.
I saw a really interesting scheme yesterday where a parking company in one part of the United Kingdom—
In Leeds it was, was it? It was offering, if you put 95 bottles into recycling, over a period, obviously, you got a free day's car parking, which to me, just picturing my car, I'm guilty as charged—there are two or three plastic bottles in there, because you go through either the drive-through, or somewhere picked up a bottle and invariably, regrettably, you'll find a municipal rubbish bin to put them in then. It doesn't make good practice, but that's a fact of life—that's what many millions of people do. If you offer that type of incentive, you could even go round collecting plastic bottles, I would suggest, because parking, for a lot of people, is a big bane of their lives.
But that is what happens in Germany. You will not see a plastic bottle on the floor, because it's worth 25 cents in Lidl or Aldi.
So, Iceland, the supermarket, have just brought a bottle-deposit scheme into their shops and they say it's working quite well.
Some of us are old enough—[Interruption.] You've generated lots of discussion. Can I go first? Some of us are old enough to remember bottle-deposit schemes. They weren't plastic, they were glass, and you paid a deposit and you got it back. We've seen a huge movement away from glass to plastic. Would you agree that's certainly a problem?
No, I'm afraid I wouldn't. You've got to look at plastic and how it's enhanced our lives as well as the harm it's done, and there's a balance between these two. There are social, economic and environmental impacts, and that's with everything we do, whether it's driving cars or whether it's using penicillin or whatever it is. We overuse, but we especially overuse when it's free. If you were to weigh up the cost of replacing all our plastic bottles with glass, you then have an increase in transportation of that product because of the increased weight. That's going to increase the amount of fuel you use and that's more emissions into the atmosphere. So, everything is, I think, a balance.
I don't think we should—we shouldn't be looking at going back to the Middle Ages. Imogen already mentioned the issue with cotton. Cotton is one of the worst things for using water and there isn't enough water on the planet for the population as it stands, and it's growing daily. So, there are areas where that may be right and the right thing to do, but I don't think we should be looking at taking a retrograde step. We should be looking at managing what we're doing. Just like any sustainable development process that we put in place, we need to manage it sustainably, and at the moment we're not.
I would look at both sides. I completely agree with David, but it depends on what sector you're looking at. After Blue Planet on the BBC, milkmen really struggled because so many people wanted to go back to glass milk bottles, and that's a system that's in place that works. We don't need plastic milk bottles if they're going to get delivered, because there's a system in place that can clean the glass ones and keep delivering on time. For water bottles, it's more tricky. I was reading that Wales is the first refill nation, so you're putting more money into public water supply and public drinking stations, and that's fantastic. That gives people the opportunity to take their water bottle and fill it up so they don't have to buy a plastic one.
I was just going to say that some community groups in Wales already organise themselves to collect plastic bottles and other litter and gain an income from it, which they can then use to incentivise other members of the community to get involved in the litter picks and environmental projects. So, that's really encouraging, I think. Obviously, if we did have policies in place that provided enhanced value for those products that they find people throwing into the hedgerows and discarding, that would allow a mushrooming and a strengthening of that community approach. Is that something that you've come across, that sort of community aspect?
It's very much a popular thing in developing countries. I was in India a couple of years ago and part of New Delhi—I was driving through it and it seemed to be the size of Ipswich, quite frankly—is just a recycling community. The problem is that there is no waste management, it's all community-based. Now, that's all they have, and it's good. I understand what they're doing, and it's good for engagement, it's good for getting the community involved in the whole problem, but I don't think, and I'm sure you weren't suggesting this, it should take over from the requirement to have a central strategy on waste management that is then pushed through in every single area, and is adequately resourced and adequately funded, so that it manages the amount of plastic. It's very simple, if we make 335 million tonnes of plastic a year, and half of it we throw away when we've used it once, we need a management process that can handle 160 million tonnes of plastic a year. And we haven't got that, and that's where the issue lies. The producers say, 'Yes, we want your recycled plastic, it's valuable to us, but while the market for oil is this price, we'll keep on using the new stuff, that's fine.'
Just on the back of that, I just wanted David to spell out the main principles of the German experience with regard to manufacturer responsibility for this, because I'm entertained by the idea.
It was introduced with a piece of German ordinance in 1991 by an environment Minister, and it basically said that all producers or people who sell plastic products would have a levy, depending on how much they've produced, and that money went into what they call the DSD—the Duales System Deutschland—which is the Grüne Punkt, the green dot system, which has now been copied in the Netherlands. And so that whole system of recycling was funded, and very much appreciated, and people had different-coloured bags for different things. Everything—everything goes for recycling. That doesn't mean that it all gets turned back into something nice and pretty—it may go to an incineration plant, because it's a low-value product. But the higher value products—your high-density polyethylene, your polyethylene terephthalate, which are worth a significant amount of money, and can be turned back into those products several times—get recycled. And it's a very, very efficient system—I hate to say it, but it is.
I gave a presentation at Magdeburg university, and I was talking to them about their system, saying it was really, really good. And they said, 'Well, if it's so good, why don't you do it in England?' And I said, 'Well, could you imagine if'—I can't remember who the Prime Minister was in 1991, but if they'd turned round and said, 'Right, we're going to make you all pay for that'? It's a different culture, but also a different—a coalition Government, with a lot of Green party influences, so it worked a lot differently.
I think we need to be careful, though, because is recycling just delaying the problem? And it's often considered that, when you recycle a plastic bottle, it's made into a worse polymer, which then can't be recycled again. So, the whole system of recycling also needs to be looked into.
I would say I agree with that—what Imogen just said. All of a sudden, many people feel they cleanse their soul by recycling, but we've all seen the pictures coming out of Hong Kong, for example, with all this plastic on the quayside, with nowhere to go, as such. And, obviously, China have pulled the drawbridge up on that, but we've just shifted it into Thailand or other places in south-east Asia, we have. And so, congratulations to the recycling sector—doing a good job—but it's actually at the point of consumption and demand that we should be trying to take that change, as such. Therefore, you haven't got the chain then, you haven't. Because in some respects recycling can be as damaging as what we're trying to prevent in the first place, can it not?
I understand why it's there, and it's extremely important. I heard that only 10 per cent of the plastic that we produce is recycled, and if a further 10 per cent of that is made into a worse polymer, and that can't be recycled again, it is just delaying the problem.
I suppose, Imogen, you're going to give a 'yes' to the question I ask—surely one of the things we should be trying to do is reuse more.
One hundred per cent. Reuse more, and people understanding why they need to reuse, and getting out of this convenient lifestyle that we live in.
Which is what we've done with plastic bags—people, even when they buy them, reuse them, because, all of a sudden, something that had no value has a value.
We need to give waste a value, because as soon as you give it a value, it's not waste.
That was the crux of a presentation that I gave at the World Ocean Summit last year, in that people wanted the—and it was in Bali—people wanted the people of Bali, and Indonesia, to suddenly start recycling. But there was no reason for them to do that—you had to have a reason. And I said, for example, if you put a pyrolysis plant, which is something that will convert plastic back into fuel oil, and put it into a community, and say, 'If you put the plastic into here, you'll get diesel at the bottom end of it'—it's not quite that simple, but that's the process—then I could see all sorts of people going around picking it up, because you've suddenly put a value on it. This is the problem with single-use plastic: you don't think—your perception is that you have not paid for it and it is valueless. In actual fact, that is totally far from the truth. Your bottle of water is around about 500 times more costly than it would be if you took the same amount of water from a tap. So, you're not paying for the water. If you were being economically minded, you'd throw the water away, and keep the bottle, and give it to somebody and see if you could make some money out of it.
Okay. Any other questions? Well, can I thank you both for coming along and giving evidence today? It's been very illuminating, and I'm sure you'll see some of it in the final report. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
Can we note the correspondence from the Chair of the Petitions Committee on single-use plastic items in Wales?
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitemau 7 ac 8 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the meeting for items 7 and 8 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Can I move a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for items 7 and 8? Yes.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:54.
The public part of the meeting ended at 11:54.
Cywiriad/Correction: Of the 17,000 tonnes of microplastics that come from car tyres in Holland, only 8,900 tonnes make their way into the environment because of the road-cleaning process.