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Unwrapping the plastic bag policy switch

Robin Latchem

The proposed extension of the 5p plastic bag charge to smaller retail outlets in England marks a big shift in the attitude of ministers in recent months. 

The charge was introduced in 2015 after similar initiatives in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but Defra didn’t go the whole hog and chose not to apply it to businesses with fewer than 250 employees - even though the Association of Convenience Stores had said their members wanted to be involved. Defra’s view at the time of a critical report from the Environmental Audit select committee in 2014 was that it didn’t want to impose an “additional burden”. 

Defra prides itself on being an ‘evidenced-based’ department. Not much of evidence then in the case of plastic bags. 

But Defra - and the Government as a whole - has come a long way, with sustainably and resource efficiency now firmly on the agenda. At the time if writing, we await the long-awaited 25-year environment plan that is part of the current secretary of state’s mission to make a difference - and to be seen doing so. For his predecessors the plan seemed like an encumbrance with reports from within Defra of little relish to develop a strategy. There is a palpable sense within the industry that that agenda has moved up a gear, and recognition that red tape (let’s own the much-maligned phrase) has a real part to play. 

After the prime minister’s reshuffle, we even have the blessing of ministers in our sector staying put. There can be little doubt Michael Gove would rather be in a more senior post - maybe even the top job at Number 10 - but while he is with us we may actually see some progress. His focus on plastic packaging, for example, could have major implications for the entire value chain.

And we are not alone in believing the resource minister Therese Coffey has grown into her post now she is well into her second year. More positive remarks about the principles of the circular economy (although she is wary of the name) are evidence of that. She has also engaged more with the industry, as her speeches at Larac and the CIWM inauguration dinner in the autumn showed.

As Suez chief exec David Palmer-Jones has said: ”This consistency of leadership at Defra is very much welcomed and is crucial if the UK wants to stand any chance of being a future leader in resource-efficiency, sustainability and environmental protection. We have seen recycling and environmental themes capture the attention of the public and policy-makers in recent months and it is important that this momentum is maintained, not squandered.”

And it’s not just Defra. The business department is buying in much more these days, with minister Claire Perry leading the way. Her elevation to a role whereby she will attend cabinet meetings is very welcome. MRW reported a speech at an Aldersgate Group meeting in December in which she said: ”I’m a great believer in rolling back the tide of regulation where possible, but red tape is not all bad. Particularly in this area where we do know that the regulations and tax and spending changes that we make have a major impact.”

A far cry from previous ministers adopting an indiscriminate approach to regulation of ‘one in, two out’. 

But all our ducks are not yet in a row. As the Environmental Audit Select Committee regularly points out, some Government departments are not so committed. We need more fiscal measures from the Treasury and the housing/communities department to support household collections to really make a difference. 

This is crucial as markets change because of the Chinese import crackdown. But, as I have indicated, we are in a better place than we were to respond to such challenges.

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