Since Theresa May announced, in January, that the government would show global leadership in tackling plastic waste, announcements on the topic have come thick and fast. Last month, the Treasury launched a long awaited call for evidence on taxing single use plastics, followed by a promise from Environment Secretary Michael Gove that England would definitely institute a deposit return scheme to capture more plastic bottles for recycling. Earlier this month, to coincide with a meeting of the Commonwealth nations, he added that England would seek to ban disposable single use plastics like straw stirrers and cotton buds.
And tonight, the environment secretary will be on the case again, helping to launch the UK Plastic Pact, a voluntary business led initiative aiming to create “a world where plastic is valued and never pollutes the environment”. Participating companies are promising, by 2025, to: “eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use packaging”; make 100 per cent of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable; ensure 70 per cent is effectively recycled or composted; and include 30 per cent recycled content across all plastic packaging.
Are we on track?
These are all great developments, and we’re pleased that a number of steps Green Alliance has been calling for to prevent plastic waste are being implemented by a government that has promised “action at every stage of the production and consumption of plastic” to end this “great environmental scourge”.
But, so far, government attention has focused almost exclusively on packaging and other single use consumer items. This is a sensible place to start, and not just because these plastics are the most visible to people. According to our research, they also account for the largest proportion of plastics reaching the ocean from developed economies like the UK. As such, a successful deposit return scheme (we are still waiting for exact proposals for England) would prevent a third of UK plastic pollution from ever reaching the sea.
Two thirds of the problem still needs a solution
But that still leaves two thirds of the problem to solve. Our research has identified several other major categories of marine plastic litter that could easily be addressed by targeted government intervention. The most obvious that need solutions are: tyre dust, which accounts for 18 per cent of the problem; maritime waste, at 11 per cent; preproduction plastic pellets, known as nurdles, which are nine per cent; and synthetic microfibres, another nine per cent. We’ve outlined elsewhere some effective measures to tackle most of these sources, but there has been little movement so far to act.
And, with the global use of plastic expected to continue to skyrocket in coming decades, more action is urgently needed to ensure single use plastics are truly reduced as far as possible, moving from recycling to higher up the waste hierarchy. Simple steps the government could take would include creating a comprehensive network of public water fountains (so no one needs to buy bottle after bottle of water) and introducing charges for plastic-lined coffee cups (along the lines of the carrier bag charge) to drive the large scale behaviour change needed to reduce our overall use of plastic.
Action at home isn’t enough
A large proportion of marine pollution results from plastics entering watercourses in countries lacking basic waste management infrastructure. Many of these are in Southeast Asia, where the UK sends a large proportion of its plastic waste, so there’s a UK interest in making sure other countries have adequate sanitation and waste management services. This would cut plastic pollution and also have major benefits for public health. So it is certainly welcome that the government’s 25 year environment plan has committed to do “more to help developing nations tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste, including through UK aid”.
Earlier this month, a £61 million fund was announced to help Commonwealth nations tackle plastic pollution. This includes £16.4 million for improving waste management infrastructure, which is a great first step.
The sea change needed to tackle the scourge of plastic has started, and today’s announcement is another step in the right direction. But to really end plastic pollution there’s still a way to go. Watch this space.