Plastic pledges mount- but how long is their lifecycle?

Written by: Patrick Cousens | Published:
Patrick Cousens

The government is making big promises on the environment but despite a few glimmers of hope there is concern that May and Gove may be jumping on the bandwagon of fleeting public sentiment.

News that 41 Conservative MPs have given up plastic for Lent is the latest in a series of high-profile announcements that are clogging up the political oceans and confusing some of its inhabitants.

The party’s commitment to environmental issues has been doubted by some in the past, yet there can be no question about the current concerted effort to promote the government’s activities in tackling plastic waste in particular.

Anyone who listened to the Prime Minister launch the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan will have noticed the dominance that plastic waste was given, taking up 616 words of Theresa May's speech, leaving issues like climate change (252 words) and air quality (209 words) trailing in its non-biodegradable wake.

The weight of Conservative activity on plastics since Blue Planet II was broadcast in late 2017 has been remarkable. In November, the Chancellor launched a call for evidence on a ‘single use plastics’ tax as part of his Budget speech. In December, as the last episode of Blue Planet II was aired, Conservative MPs took to social media to highlight the party’s environmental commitments, using a series of pre-prepared graphics. In January, plastics dominated the 25 Year Environment Plan, and February saw the aforementioned pledge by MPs to go free of single-use plastic for 40 days and 40 nights.

This focus on the scourge of plastic pollution is something to be celebrated, especially by the waste and resource management industry.Regulatory reform and funding for innovation and improved recycling activities is clearly good for business. And while tackling plastic waste may be leading the way, the government’s newfound commitment to environmentalism more broadly is surely a good thing for everyone.

Indeed, education, housing and the environment are now recognised by sources close to Number 10 as the Prime Minister’s main campaigning priorities as she seeks to develop a political legacy that goes beyond Brexit, while attracting the support of younger voters.

Yet, just like fish encountering a microbead, commentators eyeing up these green pledges will do well to assess whether or not they are artificial – and for how long they are likely to last.

Time warp

We have, after all, been here before. In 2006, David Cameron’s infamous trip to Norway for a photoshoot with huskies to highlight the issue of climate change was a memorable part of a PR campaign to rebrand the Conservative Party image – which also included changing the logo to a green tree and promising to lead the ‘greenest government ever’.

Then, halfway through the Coalition, Cameron famously vowed to ‘get rid of the green crap’, and oversaw a subsequent dismantling of a range of environmental support measures – especially under the short-lived 2015-2016 administration.

Some will therefore need reassurance that the present Prime Minister is founding this new push on more than just political expedience. There is evidence of this – the Clean Growth Strategy in particular gives real cause for optimism, as does Claire Perry’s recent promotion to the Cabinet.

Yet it is not a coincidence that this new environmentalism is being publicly led by plastic waste. Issues such as climate change have not reduced in importance – but they have reduced, at least in relative terms, in public salience following the huge impact of Blue Planet (despite warming oceans and melting glacial habitats also being featured in the programme).

At more than 150 pages, the 25-year Plan itself is impressive in scope and aims to inject greater environmental considerations into a range of areas including planning and infrastructure, while also establishing an independent green watchdog (akin to the Committee on Climate Change).

Yet the Committee on Climate Change has teeth only because of the Climate Change Act and the legal force this gives it. Without this, a new watchdog could easily be dismissed by cynical politicians as precisely the sort of ‘experts’ for whom the Environment Secretary has expressed his disdain in the past.

In fact, despite the range of issues covered, the Plan is thin on detail and contains little new funding, while the headline pledge to stop all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is actually rather unambitious given the scale of the problem.

All in all, the government is giving mixed signals. There is certainly progress being made in terms of foregrounding environmental issues within the legislative agenda, and there is recognition of growing public appetite for change. Nonetheless, only time will tell whether May and Gove will be remembered as having made a lasting impact, or just delivered plastic promises.

Patrick Cousens is an account manager at PLMR, specialists in political lobbying and media relations

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