A drop in the ocean for the fight against plastic

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

Last month, the second annual Global Recycling Day was held.

Somewhat predictably, several leading brands decided to mark the occasion by announcing a flurry of new recycling initiatives. Being the dogged (and somewhat cynical) journalist that I am, I had just tweeted a story reporting that a dead whale had been washed up in the Philippines with 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach and pointed out that there is plenty more work to do.

This time last year the UK government pledged £61.4m towards fighting ocean plastics. Back then, I questioned whether the funding was, quite literally, a drop in the ocean. It now appears that some in Westminster have been thinking the same.

“Given the challenge, is this sufficient?” Labour MP Peter Dowd asked Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond during a House of Commons debate on single-use plastics last month.

“It is a good start,” the Chancellor replied. The aim, he said, was to identify ways in which the UK can work with other countries around the world including those overseas territories that are particularly vulnerable to this issue to develop solutions that can stop plastic waste entering the ocean.

“Of course, the best way to do that is by ensuring that plastics are not created in the first place, or that they are effectively recycled. But avoiding dumping at sea is our number one priority,” he added.

Prior to this, the Chancellor had already been questioned about the government’s approach to tackling single-use plastics with its proposed tax on plastics packaging, which is currently out for public consultation.

Conservative MP Mark Pawsey asked whether in setting such policy, the government recognised the positive role that plastic packaging plays in protecting goods in transit and in keeping food fresher for longer – ultimately reducing waste.

The Chancellor acknowledged that this was about getting the balance right. He said the tax would be “carefully designed to go with the grain of the market – to incentivise manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in their packaging”.

Should the levy come into effect in 2020, only time will tell how things eventually play out, but expect some unintended consequences. The tax will initially set a 30% threshold of recycled content for new packaging so any products falling below the threshold will incur a fee.

Some within the industry are already questioning where the revenue from this will go – will it be used to help support more plastics recycling infrastructure, or not?

For me, a big failing of the plastic carrier bag charging scheme is that the proceeds aren’t ringfenced for recycling improvements. Rather, retailers decide where the money should go.

Most of the revenue goes to ‘good causes’, which is a fairly broad term in itself, but it may surprise you to learn that 14 out of 249 retailers kept £1,000 or more of their plastic bag sales, according to a BBC report last year.

So as we continue to demonise plastics, sometimes unfairly, I feel more attention should be paid by ministers to tackling the root causes of the problem. From a UK standpoint, plastic escapes into the environment because of leakage, litter, unrecyclable or hard-to-recycle packaging.

Much of this could be prevented by addressing our behaviours as consumers. But we can’t do that without investing in effective recycling infrastructure to ensure what gets captured is turned back into a viable resource.

It’s worth noting that back in February, during a House of Lords recycling debate, Baroness Maggie Jones – the shadow spokesperson for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – suggested that the government should take a harder line with manufacturers that produce unrecyclable plastics by producing an approved list of acceptable materials and penalising non-compliant products. “The government could do that immediately,” she said.

Some in the chamber also expressed disappointment at the slow timescale for proposals to standardise household recycling systems for packaging. “The time for action is now,” Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe said.

“There is a woeful lack of clarity on what is recyclable. The simple ‘one to seven’ industry codes need to appear clearly on all plastics, and all local authorities should have a uniform bin system. There should also be uniform guidance on plastic, perhaps linked to the numbers I have mentioned.”

While it may not be feasible to force all local authorities into standardised waste collections, many would argue there is a compelling role here for the plastics industry to engage in some polymer streamlining – to produce fewer plastic types and ensure that what is produced is recyclable.

Whether the government will want to intervene here remains to be seen. But patience appears to be wearing thin as the plastics agenda grows ever more urgent.

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