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Plastics, waste management and Defra’s strategy: a tale of two conferences

Representatives from Policy Connect, which runs the All-Party Sustainable Resource Group, were on hand at both party conferences.

Jim Clark, who manages the West­minster Sustainable Business Forum, came back from Birmingham with the certainty that this was one of the most interesting times to be attending the Conservative Party conference.

This is because of both the broad con­text and the political implications – with prime minister Theresa May having to manage an internal civil war and an external perception that the public might be shifting more and more towards the left and therefore to Labour’s ideas.

As far as the environment is con­cerned, politicians were keen to talk up the Conservatives’ record on the envi­ronment, from Thatcher to Cameron, looking to appeal to a younger demo­graphic of voter.

Also on this theme – and by the environmental agenda played out in the media throughout the past few months – plastics are a key area of interest for the Conservatives.

During their conference, this was reflected by various events that took place within and outside the secure zone. At an Environmental Services Association and FCC Environment panel event, for example, resources minister Therese Coffey assured the audience that the long-awaited resource and waste strategy would “definitely” be published before Christmas.

Waiting for Defra to publish a strat­egy has been something akin to waiting for Godot for those in the waste indus­try, with the vague publication timeline being pushed back numerous times. Coffey said the strategy would contain plans to curb the plastic menace, including doubling the charge on plastic bags, introducing extended producer responsibility and a tax on single-use plastics.

Retailer Asda also spoke on the panel, eager to show it was looking to reduce the size and weight of plastic packaging used in its supermarkets, while representatives from Kentucky Fried Chicken said they wanted to reduce the amount of plastic used by its restaurants, although the company was just at the beginning stages of forming a strategy.

Finally, and speaking in front of an aquarium window at a quite spectacular event set up by the Conservative Envi­ronment Network, environment secre­tary Michael Gove highlighted the Government’s commitment to reduce marine plastics – microplastics and microfibres were particularly men­tioned. He suggested that, in post- Brexit Britain, improving the environment through waste policy is an opportunity that can turn the UK into a “world-leader”.

The week previously, Policy Connect manager Julieta Cuneo was in Liver­pool, where the Labour Party presented its environmental policies in its Green Transformation manifesto. Launched by MPs Rebecca Long-Bailey and Sue Hayman, shadow secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy and shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, respectively, the docu­ment sums up Labour’s policies to “tackle climate change, improve our environment and build a sustainable economy”.

While the self-defined pamphlet clearly ticks all the right boxes – men­tioning the need for more renewable energy and bringing power transmis­sion networks back into public owner­ship – the imperative to expand the quantity of green jobs and the urge to reverse the decline of biodiversity and improve air and water quality, it was quite surprising to find only one men­tion of plastic bottles in the 14-page document.

Recycling, waste management and the need to tackle the issue of single-use plastics are nowhere to be found in the manifesto. While it could poten­tially be argued that these topics were too specific for the remit of the publica­tion and that they certainly deserve a document on their own, in the context of the Government’s current plastic hype and the already mentioned expec­tation on Defra’s resource and waste strategy, it is hard not to view Labour’s omission of waste and plastics as a seri­ously missed opportunity. Time will tell whether it will make it up.

Policy Connect is a cross-party public policy think-tank currently developing its own research and policy recommen­dations for a vision on Zero Plastic Waste in collaboration with the National Environment Research Council and Innovate UK. Find out more at

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