This post is by Susan Evans, interim head of resource policy at Green Alliance and Jessica Kleczka, policy assistant at Green Alliance.
Earlier this month marked the six month anniversary of the Environment Act coming into force. It was a groundbreaking piece of legislation, not least in its new powers to tackle single use materials, beyond plastic. This was a significant win for organisations like Green Alliance. We have spent many years raising the profile of how wasteful resource use damages the environment and is bad for the economy.
But, half a year on, the clock is still ticking, awaiting government action to accelerate the shift away from throwaway culture.
The ability to impose charges on single use items made of any material, when supplied alongside a purchase such as food or drink, may seem like a small step but it gives the government a chance to lead the world in tackling the environmental scourge of disposable items. It allows England to take the symbolic step from waste policy, focused on end of life impacts, to resource stewardship, taking into account the whole life cycle impacts of resource use on global and local environmental crises.
It’s high time the government showed it means business, with a plan for how it will use its powers to drive more reuse and refills.
We use double our fair share of resources in the UK
The average person in the UK uses 14.7 tonnes of raw materials a year, twice the UN’s recommended six to eight tonnes per head to stay within environmental limits. As well as causing nature loss and water stress, the excessive use of resources is closely connected with the climate crisis, accounting for around half of emissions globally, even before taking the impacts of waste management, such as incineration, into account. For these reasons, Green Alliance has called for an ambitious, but achievable, target to halve the UK’s total resource consumption by 2050. The government has so far committed to eliminate avoidable waste and proposed a legally binding target to halve residual waste per person (the stuff we throw away that ends up in landfill or burnt) by 2042.
Unnecessary single use items are just one part of a bigger resources challenge but they cause significant environmental problems, visible to us all every day. Tackling them can help to change consumer culture away from disposables and towards reuse. Food related single use items such as cups, cutlery and straws are relatively straightforward to switch, at the point of use, to reusable alternatives, which is also generally cheaper on a per use basis. But current policies don’t promote this, they instead encourage a switch to different single use items, made of aluminium, wood, card, bagasse and other materials.
Switching to other single use materials could triple greenhouse gas emissions
The widespread misperception that “as long as it’s not plastic, it’s green” should be challenged. Analysis by PwC for Green Alliance has shown that if we were to switch wholesale from plastic to other packaging materials, the UK’s associated emissions could nearly triple.
Higher use of plant-based alternatives would also exacerbate pressures on land and supply chains for sustainable forestry products. And these material switches could be about to increase exponentially: countries around the world have just agreed to pursue a treaty on plastics. If it prioritises only ditching plastic over ditching disposables altogether, there could be unintended environmental consequences on a global scale.
More urgency, foresight and holistic thinking are clearly needed. Yet the government continues to address single use by playing plastics ‘Whack-a-mole’, banning one product at a time: sauce sachets and tobacco filters are currently under the spotlight. This approach is inefficient and ineffective, when systemic solutions should be found to this systemic problem.
Existing opportunities are being missed
Reforms to the extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging which, from 2024, will shift most of the cost burden of managing packaging waste onto companies, present a chance to encourage reuse by reducing compliance fees for refillable packaging and subsidising reuse initiatives. But the government is overlooking this opportunity, choosing only to support recycling.
Likewise, whereas Germany and the Netherlands include reusable bottles in their deposit return schemes (DRS) for drinks containers, England has indicated no such intention. To be really effective, DRS should be supporting glass bottle refill systems, but the plan as it stands is so unambitious it won’t even be supporting glass recycling. It is not too late to ensure that both EPR and DRS schemes also support refills.
The power to impose a charge for single use items is one of several new policy tools available to tackle throwaway culture, offering the chance to intervene at the top of the waste hierarchy before items reach the market. Other tools include producer responsibility obligations, which could be deployed to make companies hit reuse targets, and resource efficiency requirements which could demand that items are designed for reuse.
A bold government plan to use these powers, alongside other measures around reuse systems, could galvanise businesses faster towards a circular economic transition and set an example for other countries in the global plastics treaty to follow.