Mark Pawsey

MP who chairs plastic packaging lobbying group faces conflict of interest allegations

Image credit: Mark Pawsey, MP for Rugby and Bulkington. Photograph: UK Parliament

An investigation into flexible packaging recycling schemes has exposed how an MP paid to chair a plastic packaging industry lobbying group is able to directly influence a parliamentary group he also chairs.

The investigation, carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), also found that some UK supermarket schemes are failing to adequately address the mounting problem of soft plastics and that a fund set up by some of the world’s largest brands to encourage UK soft plastic recycling has yet to pay out a penny.

In a briefing, published this week, the EIA notes that Mark Pawsey, MP for Rugby and Bulkington, has since 2020 had a second job outside Parliament as the £30,000-a-year chair of the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) lobby group.

According to the briefing, the FPA’s position is that people, not producers, are responsible for litter, and it has been pushing to pause the implementation of UK policies currently being developed, including extended producer responsibility for packaging, which aims to ensure producers pay for the full disposal costs of the packaging they put on the market.

Pawsey is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Packaging Manufacturing Industry, which is also attended by the FPA.

The House of Commons Standards Committee recently described APPGs as potentially becoming “the next great parliamentary scandal.”

E&T has approached Pawsey for comment. He told the EIA that when asked by the FPA to take on the role of chair in 2020, he immediately declared this role on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and has drawn attention to it on each occasion he has spoken on matters relating to the sector in Parliament. 

However, the EIA has found four separate instances where Pawsey spoke of packaging or plastic in Parliament but did not declare this interest. 

The FPA said it recognised "the environmental issues around plastic and has been fully engaged with the processes to develop policy and legislation to improve recovery and recycling of plastics and to reduce waste".

A spokesperson for the trade body said that far from opposing EPR, it had campaigned for reform since 2017.

“Any ‘pushing’ to pause legislation has been undertaken to help manufacturers deal with complex legislation and ensure that they and their customers are ready, and the legislation is effective. For example, the current ban on some single use plastics items in Scotland came into effect on 1 June, without proper guidance from Scottish government on what to do with existing stocks, causing confusion and unintended wastage,” they added.

In 2020, 92 per cent of plastic film packaging placed on the market in the UK was not recycled, accounting for 38 per cent of the 828,000 tonnes of plastic packaging not collected for recycling from households.

To combat this, many UK supermarkets have introduced in-store soft plastic takeback schemes, with customers encouraged to return soft plastic waste via bins provided. 

However, an E&T investigation, cited by the EIA, raised questions as to the ultimate fate of material that is shipped to Poland as part of a scheme from two major supermarkets.

Lauren Weir, EIA’s ocean campaigner, said: “Focusing on trying to recycle hard-to-recycle soft plastics or the unethical export of plastic waste, on which these schemes are primarily focused, will ultimately allow the harmful status quo to prevail. We simply don’t have the time to indulge in half-hearted efforts.”

Top brands also claim to be doing their part in tackling plastic pollution.

In May 2021, Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, were the initial founders of a joint fund to help incentivise a soft plastics recycling market in the UK. 

But these global companies have collectively put a total of just £1m a year into their Flexible Plastic Fund which, according to EIA’s calculations, would pay to tackle only about 10,000 tonnes of soft plastic compared to the 287,500 tonnes not collected in 2020.

Furthermore, it notes that the Flexible Plastic Fund, which is supported by Pawsey, has to date yet to pay out a penny.

In response, Gareth Morton, discovery manager at Ecosurety, which runs the fund, said he acknowledged that UK flexible plastics recycling “is not developing as quickly as we had hoped when we set up the Fund last year”.

He added that the FPF hasn’t released any funding because “we haven’t so far had the full traceability of the collected material, which is a core objective of the Fund”.

Ecosurety also pointed out that the initial size of the fund was calculated based on estimates of the amount of plastics collected by retailers, not on all soft plastics placed on the market, and that the annual amount is set to increase as collected traced materials increase.

This article was updated on 22 June to include a response from the FPA. It was also corrected to clarify that FPA takes the position that people, not producers are responsible for 'litter', as opposed to plastic pollution.

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