Here’s what Theresa May should now do to end plastic pollution

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After years of waiting, we finally have it: this morning, Theresa May launched her government’s 25 year plan for the environment. By far the most talked about aspect of the long awaited and wide ranging strategy is the prime minister’s promise to “demonstrate global leadership” by addressing needlessly produced plastic. This will be achieved, she vowed, through action “at every stage of the production and consumption of plastic”. Bold words indeed.

Looking at the document itself, the language is rather less bold. Actions it promises include: “encouraging” producers to take more responsibility; “exploring” extending producer responsibility rules to products not covered by current requirements; “supporting” companies to increase refill points; “working with” retailers to “explore” a plastic-free supermarket aisle; and “supporting” and “encouraging” industry to provide recycling information on packaging labels.

Concrete steps the government says it will take on plastics are limited to promises of funding the development of more sustainable materials; extending the 5p carrier bag charge to all shops (this is a welcome move but will still only address one per cent of marine plastic pollution); and using international aid to help developing nations tackle the problem.

No hesitation
The prime minister correctly identifies plastic pollution as “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”. As she says, action at every stage is needed to tackle it seriously.

And there’s hope that words could yet translate into action. Hidden away in her speech was a significant statement confirming her approach to governance: “Environmental protection is a vital part of any good regulatory regime,” she said. “So where government needs to intervene to ensure that high standards are met, we will not hesitate to do so.”

This reflects an approach she first outlined a year ago when launching the industrial strategy green paper. That document, she promised, would be “underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role.”

Concrete steps are within government’s remit

So, to help turn the plan into action and end the scourge of plastic, here are the five simple steps the government could take now:

1. Stop the production of plastic that can’t be recycled
There is clearly too much plastic being produced and finding its way into the environment. One of the main reasons this happens is because some plastic has no value beyond its first use and there is no adequate collection or recycling system for it. Products that are unlikely to be recycled, like takeaway containers, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, stirrers and drinking straws, could be effectively taxed to encourage a shift to either reduce their use or shift to genuinely biodegradable alternatives.

2. Reduce the array of plastic types on the market
Plastics come in a wide and sometimes baffling array of varieties, including some particularly problematic materials likely to cause pollution, especially oxo-degradables and expanded polystyrene. These could be taxed to cut their use, but if the goal is to completely get rid of them, as we would argue it should be, we would encourage the government to institute an outright ban.

3. Introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers
For plastic products that are readily recycled, like plastic bottles, the preferable measure is a deposit return scheme (DRS) rather than a tax, because it leads to the collection of a high value and high quality, source separated material. DRSs, which could capture up to a third of marine plastic pollution, are in place in ten US states and 14 European countries. Good systems (such as that in Norway) capture 95 per cent of bottles. The policy goal should be to increase material capture and quality to make it economically viable to recycle.

4. Implement policies that make recycling more economically attractive
Government recycling policy to date has largely focused on push measures, like targets to drive action, while ignoring complementary pull measures that would create markets for recycled materials. Our research has shown that the UK produces enough plastics to support 45 closed loop recycling facilities across the country, rather than the handful that are currently struggling to obtain enough material of high enough quality. Together with the much needed reform of packaging producer responsibility obligations, the government should implement policies to encourage the use of secondary (ie recycled) plastic. Measures to do this could include taxes on virgin materials and minimum recycled content obligations.

5. Standardise recycling collections
Part of the drive to create secondary markets must be to improve the quality of the material collected, including by ensuring that all councils collect the same materials in a way that produces material of high enough quality to be reprocessed. Although WRAP published a framework for greater consistency in this area in 2016, uptake has been low, indicating a clear need for government intervention to make it happen.

Theresa May says her government won’t hesitate to intervene where needed. The soon to be published resource and waste strategy – the first in a decade – is the perfect opportunity to follow through on that promise.

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