There is no doubt that high-profile media campaigns on plastic waste and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series have greatly influenced the Government’s attitude to plastics and waste.
Of more than 30 action points listed in Defra’s 25-year plan, half were specifically on tackling plastic waste.
By comparison, there were just three action points on food – and no new policies – with a few more on litter. Seven action points dealt with recycling in general.
When prime minister Theresa May launched the plan, she mentioned the BBC, Sky and Daily Mail as all helping to bring plastic to the nation’s consciousness. But she denied allegations that she was focusing on a popular issue to woo younger voters.
Also notable is what was left out of the plan: there was no space for pledges on deposit return schemes or a levy on single-use coffee cups, two policies that are getting a lot of attention.
Both May and environment secretary Michael Gove were grilled by journalists on the lack of measures that might spur businesses to improve resource efficiency, and both kept pointing to the 5p carrier bag levy in 2015 rather than giving assurances that the plan would have real teeth.
This Government, it seems, is still wary of placing financial demands on companies to achieve policy goals.
But a policy-starved industry has, by and large, been cheered by the plan’s publication because it continues a number of resources and waste announcements made in last year’s Clean Growth Strategy, National Infrastructure Assessment and Industrial Strategy.
- Call for evidence in 2018 seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastics waste.
- Work with industry to rationalise packaging and materials formats to make sure that more plastics can be recycled easily and the quality of collected recycled plastics is improved.
- Reform PRN systems (including packaging waste regulations) to incentivise producers to take greater responsibility for the environmental impact of their products. This will include exploring extending producer responsibility requirements to plastic products not currently covered by existing regimes to create a better market for recycled plastic.
- Build on microbeads ban by exploring whether to ban other problematic materials where suitable alternatives exist.
- Work with Beis, Innovate UK, research councils and industry to bring forward a bid for the next round of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund awards later in 2018 to help develop a pipeline of more sustainable materials that will have a lower environmental impact.
- Remove all consumer single-use plastics from the central Government estate offices.
- Extend uptake of the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers, exploring whether compulsory options are needed if voluntary agreements prove ineffective.
- Support water companies, high street retailers, coffee shops and transport hubs to offer refill points for people to top-up water bottles for free in every major city and town in England.
- Work with retailers and WRAP to explore introducing plastic-free supermarket aisles in which all the food is loose.
- Work with the waste management industry and reprocessors to increase significantly the proportion of plastic packaging that is collected and recycled.
- Work with the research councils to help develop a standard for biodegradable plastic bags as part of emerging work on a national Bioeconomy Strategy.
- Work through the UN, G7 and G20 to tackle marine plastics pollution at an international level.
- Work with the International Maritime Organization to address the control and prevention of ship-source pollution.
- Look at ways to increase the use of heat produced at waste facilities through better connections to heat networks.
- Investigate ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions from energy-fron-waste facilities by managing the amount of plastics in the residual waste stream.
- Seek to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites during the lifetime of the plan, prioritising those of highest risk.
- Work with industry to explore options to introduce electronic tracking of waste.
- As part of a Resources and Waste Strategy, to be published in 2018, develop strategic approach to prevent, detect and deter waste crime.
- Accelerate work on consistency of household collections.
- Continue to support the industry lead for an on-pack recycling labelling system, and encourage all brands and retailers to use it to provide information to householders.
David Palmer-Jones, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK chief executive: “It rightly places our environment at the heart of Government strategy and following in the wake of the Industrial Strategy, recognises the importance of sustainable growth to the UK economy post-Brexit.
“The ambition to extend producer responsibility should look beyond plastics to develop a whole life-cycle approach, across a range of materials with good properties for reuse and recycling.
“Having invested heavily in new facilities to support the move away from landfill over the last decade, we are pleased that this plan recognises the important role energy recovery facilities have played in this transition and the ambition to make these facilities more efficient by identifying ways to increase the use of the heat they produce.
“Overall, the plan represents an important first step towards policies that will support the growth of our industry and enable it to play a pivotal role in the development of a more resource efficient, sustainable economy.”
Ray Georgeson, Resource Association chief executive: “Many of the signals give encouragement to our industry but frankly, our nation is and should be capable of so much more than this in terms of real time specifics, targets and legislative underpinning.”
Simon Ellin, Recycling Association chief executive: “It’s good that there now appears to be an understanding of the challenges and a desire to tackle them. But having a vision will not suffice. We need real and positive momentum to drive change.
“For this reason, we will continue to put pressure on the complete recycling supply chain to look for new solutions and do things differently. And that includes Government.”
Charlotte Morton, chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association: “Despite rightly identifying recycling food waste as a ‘key priority’ in today’s plan, Defra’s failure to commit to rolling out mandatory separate food waste collections in England is a missed opportunity to reduce food waste levels and allow AD plants to produce the renewable energy, transport fuel, and biofertilisers that we as a country desperately need.”
Roseanna Cunningham, Scottish Government cabinet secretary for the environment: “We have already begun work on a deposit return scheme, which will reduce the amount of plastic littering our countryside and polluting our seas.
“We are also in the process of setting up an expert panel to provide comprehensive advice on the use of charges and other measures to help tackle our throw-away culture.
“And only this morning, I announced proposals to ban the sale of one of the items which most often washes up on our beaches – plastic-stemmed cotton buds.
“We will always seek to work constructively with other governments in the UK and beyond but it’s clearer than ever that decisions about Scotland’s precious natural environment are best made in Scotland.”
Leonie Cooper, chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee: “Londoners consume more plastic bottled water per person than anywhere else in England, we have some of the worst recycling rates in the UK and plastic bottles make up 10 per cent of all litter found in the Thames.
“So, while we commend the Government’s ideas – we push for more speed to implement solutions to an urgent problem that is getting worse by the day.”
Susanne Baker, head of environment and compliance at techUK: “Technology has a huge role to play in helping to achieve the aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan, with the opportunity for “Green Tech” to make both significant economic as well as environmental contributions. Over the coming months we will initiate a report exploring exactly how technologies can help deliver the aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy.
“Specifically on waste and resources, there is a welcome focus on the role of producer responsibility systems and the better utilisation of resources from waste, an area of policy which the tech sector has been positively engaged with now for over a decade.”
Samantha Harding, litter programme director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England: “It’s impressive the Government has chosen to respond so emphatically to the plastic plague that is already putting our countryside, cities and oceans at risk of irreversible harm. The charge on plastic bags has shown that we easily adapt to financial incentives, so the prospect of further charges or taxes that could eliminate products like plastic straws and stirrers is really positive news. And promoting innovation amongst producers will be critical to ensuring we eliminate unnecessary single-use items, as well as making sure that they are taking financial responsibility for the impact these products have.”
Allison Ogden-Newton, Keep Britain Tidy chief executive: “We are delighted that the government has listened to Keep Britain Tidy and extended the 5p on single-use plastic bags to all retailers.
“The bag charge, which we successfully campaigned to introduce, has proved to be incredibly successful in changing behaviour, with billions less bags in circulation and we look forward to similar measures to reduce the impact of plastic bottles, coffee cups and other packaging on our environment.
“Charges like the proposed latte levy should not be about raising money, they need to drive behaviour change, and the bag charge has proved that they do.”