What’s in Gove’s plastic bag of tricks?

The new environment secretary’s praise for the carrier bag tax suggests that a previously regulation-shy government could get tough on waste. By David Burrows.

What a difference 5p makes. New DEFRA figures show that seven of the UK’s largest food retailers have issued 83% fewer plastic bags since a tax was introduced in October 2015. The policy has been “an enormous success”, said the environment secretary, Michael Gove, but there’s more to do.

In a wide-ranging speech – the first since his surprise appointment to Nobel House – Gove ticked off most of his new portfolio (animals, plants, food, forests, fish and farmers), but the detail offered on waste policies is intriguing.

Long has waste policy suffered in the shadows at DEFRA, but could the popularity of the bag tax and the fact that litter and disposable packaging have rocketed up the social agenda lead Gove to thrust it back into the spotlight?

A “renewed strategy on waste and resources” was promised. “We will explore methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas, improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters.”

Oftentimes, the use of the word “explore” by a politician is tantamount to them hitting the policy snooze button as stakeholders proceed to contradict one another for a few months of heated, and ultimately fruitless, “consultation”. But let’s keep the glass (or rather plastic bottles and coffee cups) half full for a moment.

Gove also confirmed that legislation will be introduced this year to ban the sale and manufacture of microbeads (tiny pieces of plastic mistaken by sea life for food) in cosmetics and products such as toothpaste and shower gel.

Is the tide turning, and will this previously regulation-shy government – freed from the shackles of Brussels – start taking a tougher stance on waste?

“It’s important that as we look at the history of EU policy, we recognise that environmental policy must also be insulated from capture by producer interests who put their selfish agenda ahead of the common good,” said Gove.

Specifically he was talking about the diesel scandal. And let’s not forget that he was speaking at the Woking headquarters of the environmental campaign group WWF. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear the suggestion that industry lobbyists might need to shout louder in order to be heard.

Will he also consider more controversial policies, such as a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles or a tax on disposable coffee cups?

The packaging industry, wholesalers and beverage manufacturers have been vehemently opposed to the former – it’s expensive and won’t reduce litter or increase recycling, they say.

Supporters believe a deposit of between 10p and 20p could result in return rates of 85% to 95%, with the possibility of environmental benefits “significantly higher” than the financial costs, according to a report written by consultants at Eunomia in 2015.

Coffee cups have similarly split industry and campaign groups down the middle. A study published by Zero Waste Europe this month showed that a deposit return scheme for disposable cups (like the one in Freiberg, Germany) could “help solve littering issues” and reduce the 15 billion cups ending up in EU landfill sites each year. A tax wouldn’t be as effective, the report concluded, but would be “an easier way to push recyclables”.

Martin Kersh, the executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, is sceptical of the idea. He told Footprint that even the coffee shops that have given away reusable cups and then offered free coffee the first time customers use them have experienced only “extremely short term” changes in behaviour (though there is no hard data on this).

The Queen’s Speech contained no environmental legislation. Still, it would be no surprise if Gove were, for example, mulling over a 5p tax for cups – it’s high profile (thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign) and would show businesses that he means business. It would also appease campaigners who were up in arms at his return to the cabinet and his tendency to play to an audience of Tory sceptics.

To this end it will be worth watching whether parliament’s environmental audit committee reopens its inquiry into disposable packaging. Launched in March, it was closed prematurely due to June’s snap election. However, since then Mary Creagh has been re-elected as chair.

Here’s what Creagh said in March. “Our throwaway society has given us a tide of litter on our beaches, dead seabirds and fish, and plastic in our food. We all enjoy a takeaway coffee or tea, but the cups they are served in are particularly difficult to recycle because they combine plastic coating and cardboard. Our inquiry will be taking a serious look at solutions like the use of different materials, behaviour change, better recycling and bottle deposit return schemes.”

Look at it closely, and it’s not that dissimilar to Gove’s words in Woking. Bosses at Starbucks or Pepsi won’t be choking on their drinks just yet, but the new (and still controversial) environment secretary might not be like the pushovers they have faced in the past.

Michael Gove’s full speech is available here.

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