The devastation to marine life caused by plastic has enraged the British public and made them advocates for much-needed change. Scenes of damaged habitats shocked the nation during the Blue Planet series, and the media are now capitalising on public feelings with further features about the problems with plastics.
So it is a great opportunity for the waste and recycling industry to support MPs in their work to find appropriate solutions – and for us in Westminster to listen and make the necessary changes, which I hope to have carved out in my Private Member’s Bill on plastics.
In the Bill, I am calling on environment secretary Michael Gove to demonstrate this leadership by creating a fair and transparent packaging recovery note (PRN) system which ensures that the producer pays, uses a fiscal strategy that decreases the production of plastics and funds research into alternatives.
This is due for its second reading on 26 October but, despite warm words from the Government, it has made little progress in this area.
Instead, the Government has proposed various consultations – and even a partnership with UK Scouts – to help clean up single-use plastics from our oceans. But if it is truly committed to leaving the environment in a better state for future generations, then it must act now.
The autumn Budget is one way to prove its sincerity; at the time of writing we have yet to see what will be in it. Another will be in Defra’s upcoming resources and waste strategy, and we should work together to ensure it includes ambitious proposals and targets to reduce the amount of plastic waste.
The failure by the Government to ensure producers of hard-to-recycle plastics pay for the environmental and social costs of the products they bring to market, combined with a lack of adequate recycling infrastructure and the absence of incentives to invest in sustainable alternatives, have all conspired to see plastic waste increasingly infiltrate our day-to-day lives and seas.
I was shocked to find out that plastic nurdles (about the size of a lentil) pollute nearly three-quarters of UK beaches. In Swansea, a 2017 Great British Beach Clean survey found an average of 1,286 pieces of plastic and polystyrene per 100m of beach.
The implications of plastic litter for ocean wildlife are appalling. At least 519 marine species ingest or become tangled in plastic litter, including 45% of the mammals listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The case for action is clear. But the Government’s invitation to industry and experts to advise on the best course of action seems like further delaying tactics, which appear to be one of the earliest consequences of the ongoing Brexit negotiations that have disabled Government departments from doing anything else. Ensuring that proper provisions are set out as soon as possible is vital to ensuring that the recycling industry is given the support it needs.
Plastic bottles comprise one-third of marine plastic litter. Although the Government has set out plans for a deposit return scheme (DRS) on drinks containers, there is a fear that this has been hijacked by plastics producers. They are asking for the inclusion of size and material criteria which would mean that up to 2.9 billion bottles a year would be excluded from the scheme.
“A plastics tax would have to be carefully designed to avoid producers moving to other unsustainable materials and to prevent the cost being transferred to consumers.”
Even with the DRS, which is subject to the results of yet another consultation, it can only go part of the way in resolving the plastics issue.
Of the 13 billion plastic bottles used in the UK every year, only 57% are recycled. An effective DRS might capture more high-quality waste for recycling, but there is little evidence it will lower consumption. In fact, there is some evidence that the introduction of schemes like these can actually increase the consumption of single-use plastics, as was the case in Belgium and Germany.
It is therefore vital that other measures, including a plastics tax, are introduced alongside a DRS to tackle the excessive single-use plastics production.
My Bill calls on the secretary of state to set and meet annual targets for the production and recycling of plastic packaging. These targets would ensure that the UK does not fall behind the EU in its ambition to reduce plastic pollution, regardless of Brexit.
In fact, it calls for the UK to be more ambitious than the EU so that, by the end of 2025, all new plastic packaging produced and sold in the UK must be recyclable. Such a target is both more detailed and more urgent than the Government’s loose commitment to abolish all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
One of the main challenges for reducing the use of plastics is increasing its price, which currently does not reflect its real cost due to huge oil subsidies. Ahead of the Budget and again in the Bill, I have urged the Government to ensure that a plastics fiscal strategy is put in place to reduce the amount of single-use material.
However, a plastics tax would have to be carefully designed to avoid producers moving to other unsustainable materials and to prevent the cost being transferred to consumers. So investment in research is essential to find these suitable alternatives.
Inventors can apply to a £1.4m pot of funding
The UK Circular Plastics Flagship Projects Competition will award match-funded grants of between £100,000 and £500,000 to any UK business with an idea to help improve plastics sustainability.
Ideas must focus on one or more of four aims: reduce the volume of plastic waste; significantly improve plastic recycling rates; reduce levels of confusion among the population; and reduce the amount of plastics ending up in the oceans.
The competition is being managed by WRAP working with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
The cash is coming from a £20m Plastic Research and Innovation Fund, announced by the chancellor during last year’s autumn budget statement. It is hoped the Fund will help to engage the best scientists and innovators to create sustainable approaches to plastics.
The Bill would require Gove to make arrangements for an independent review of the potential contribution that a Government fiscal strategy could make in reducing the production of plastics (especially drinks bottles), and use the money to fund research into alternatives as well a plastics agency to help set targets and monitor results. To encourage the recycling of plastics further, the taxation should also target the materials that are hardest to recycle.
Effective taxes could also be used to reduce the vast array of plastic types on the market, making it simpler for consumers to recycle the right things and easier for recycling facilities to sort and reprocess the streams of plastic waste they receive.
Reforming the broken PRN system is another step on the way to increasing recycling rates and forcing the polluter to pay, again ensuring the real price of plastics is given proper consideration for those making it. In the UK, businesses pay less towards the recycling of their materials than in other EU countries, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. More transparency is certainly crucial.
Away from policy-makers, some retailers are already leading the way to turn the tide of plastic production.
Iceland has vowed to eliminate all plastic packaging from its own-brand products within five years. In September, Tesco followed Morrisons and Iceland by introducing a trial of reverse vending machines, which give shoppers cash back for every plastic bottle they return. These supermarkets are proving that more can be done – and it can be done quicker.
The Plastics Pact led by WRAP has also incentivised businesses to take responsibility for reducing plastics, inspired by the public mood. According to Viridor’s 2018 Recycling Index, four in five people believe the UK should deal with its own recycling without having to export it, while a clear majority (61%) of consumers say they are more likely to buy products with packaging made from recyclable material.
Legislators should now follow the momentum and plug the plastics tap. All eyes will be on the resources and waste strategy, and I will continue to promote my Plastics Bill as a blueprint of where we need to be. I welcome feedback for future drafts (geraint.davies. email@example.com).
With 12 million tonnes a year of plastic entering our oceans – the equivalent of the contents of one refuse collection vehicle every minute – deferring our responsibilities for another 25 years is not an option. We need action now.
Geraint Davies is labour and co-operative MP at Swansea West