Last June, I introduced a 10-minute rule bill in the House of Commons that aimed to convince the Government to make producers take extended responsibility for the packaging they produce – the ‘polluter pays’ principle. It would mean that councils and tax payers no longer have to foot the bill for increasingly expensive recycling and waste management, and the UK can lead the way in safeguarding its wildlife and oceans for future generations.
Packaging pollution first came to my attention more than 10 years ago when I was working as a specialist adviser to Welsh ministers. The impact that packaging and plastics were having on our wildlife, natural resources and climate change was becoming increasingly evident.
That’s why the Welsh Government introduced the 5p charge on single-use plastic bags, which, since 2011, has resulted in a 71% reduction in their usage – showing the difference that can be made when the Government acts.
Unfortunately, it took the UK Government four years to follow suit and, since then, its commitment to addressing the overwhelming amount of single-use and non-recyclable packaging we use every day has been erratic.
As Sir David Attenborough said: “Wherever I go, whether it be in the mountains, on the moors or on the coast, there is discarded plastic everywhere. The Government haven’t a clue – by the time it acts, it will be too late.”
Currently, UK businesses are required by law to pay for recycling through compliance schemes. The more packaging they produce, the more they pay. However, the cost to business is low so there is no incentive for businesses to change.
Under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, a 50% penalty could be added for packaging that is not easily separated and is considerably disruptive to the recycling stream, such as coffee cups and black plastic packaging. Alternatively, a reduction in the levy could be given to producers that reduce the packaging weight of their product or make it easier to recycle.
Crucially, the British public are also demanding change. A recent survey of 16 to 75-year-olds found that almost all are concerned about the effects of plastic waste on the environment, with 54% willing to buy more products made from recycled materials. But there is only so much consumers can do if alternatives are not available.
In my own constituency of Cardiff North, students at Rhiwbeina Primary School have started the ‘Kids Against Plastic’ #PACKETin campaign, where they collect crisp and chocolate wrappers and post them back to the manufacturers with a letter asking them to switch to packaging that can be recycled. It’s a positive campaign that gives our next generation a voice.
But are the producers listening? I have found that, yes, they are. In writing my 10-minute rule bill, I spoke to a range of industry leaders who were just as frustrated as the public and I am with the current system. They are crying out for a more effective and transparent recycling system that ensures the money they pay through compliance schemes goes towards improving the recycling infrastructure.
Late last year, in conjunction with Policy Connect, I brought producers, retailers and waste management companies around a table to get their feedback on my bill and discuss the best way forward for implementing extended producer responsibility. All attendees were committed to the idea of fundamentally reforming the current system, and agreed that producers and retailers would need to contribute more to cover the cost of recycling and recovering their packaging.
There was also widespread agreement that there should be incentives for producers to use packaging that is easily recyclable, and that local authorities should receive more of the revenue raised from any future compliance scheme to ensure more consistency in collections. I continue to work with retailers and other key stakeholders from across the sector to ensure this opportunity for reform is not wasted.
I believe that my bill is already making a difference by bringing the voices of people, producers, waste experts and the Government together. It is also the basis for vital legislation that would make a difference to our environment, and the UK economy. Without producer responsibility enshrined into law, the cost of recycling falls to councils that are struggling to pay for vital services such as social care and housing.
Figures show that more than half of councils have had to cut their budgets for waste collections and communications for kerbside plastics recycling. But if this bill becomes law, producers would need to change the packaging of their products or contribute to getting better recycling infrastructure.
That’s why I am urging the Government to take heed, drive innovation and respond to the growing number of voices, including those of producers and waste industry experts, that are becoming more and more frustrated by being unable to prevent packaging pollution.
The BBC’s Blue Planet II had a massive impact on the British psyche. Who can forget the image of the turtle wrapped in a plastic sack or the photo by John Cancalosi of the stork wrapped in a plastic bag? It’s time for legislation so that producers take transparent responsibility for their packaging.