Plastics package: pricey tins, silver straws and doubling of the bag tax

Marketers have put the pedal to the metal with ‘sustainable’ cans of water. Not so fast, says David Burrows.

Let’s start with an apology (rather than tuck it away on a page no one ever reads in size six font). We’d like to say sorry to David Newman for renaming him David Norman in the August Package. It was summer, the sun was out, and there was a can of cold lager to hand.

The beauty of beer of course is that it comes in cans (or if you like the Belgian stuff, glass bottles). These aluminium holders can be readily recycled (72% of them were in 2017) – and infinitely so. Surely, then, more things need to be put in cans rather than plastic, which can be recycled (but often isn’t) only a finite number of times. Things like, say, water?

“Your on the go drinking options just got way more sustainable,” boomed in August. “In 700 Tesco stores, you can now buy completely recyclable aluminium cans of water from environmentally conscious drinks company CanO Water.”

Look at the brand’s website and these cans of Austrian spring water are, it is claimed, “a solution to plastic pollution”. Putting aside the energy used to extract aluminium (readers keen on opening cans of worms should feel free to Google “life cycle analysis – aluminium v glass v plastic”) and the yet-to-be-quantified potential health risks from exposure to the metal, isn’t the solution just tap water?

It’s not just aluminium that’s threatening the plastic water bottle industry, either. Will Smith was in the UK last month to promote his son Jaden’s carton water brand, Just Water – now available at Boots and Whole Foods Market stores. The brand’s site has plenty of detail, including what the packaging is made from (54% FSC paper, 28% plant-based plastic, 3% aluminium and 15% plastic film) and where it can be recycled (mainly bring banks, apparently). “It is our mission to create better options for the things we need in our lives,” the website reads. “We started with water.”

Once again: a tap? Indeed, here at the Package we wish Jaden had started with something like a Brexit deal, BT customer services or a larger version of Greggs’ sausage and bean melt.

But back to water bottles. Efforts to encourage people to buy refillable bottles has increased. Lord’s Cricket Ground has put in more water fountains (but has also switched from plastic bottles to cans for those that don’t have their own bottle), whilst last week the mayor of London announced the rollout of another 20 public drinking fountains at transport hubs, shopping centres and public parks. At the first of the fountains, installed back in March, almost 15,000 half-litre bottles have already been filled. The average Londoner buys 175 bottles of aqua a year, so there’s a long way to go – or a lot of money to be made if you’re a canned water company.

Speaking of profiteering, the fashion industry is cashing in on #plasticfree with six limited-edition glass straws selling for £50 a pack. A sterling silver one by a famous jeweller will set you back £145 – or about as much as a plastic bag will cost in 2050.

Indeed, reports emerged last week that the prime minister, Theresa May, was planning to double the plastic bag charge to 10p. However, the Telegraph’s mole next door at No 11 Downing Street (who has had cup to wall all week) suggested the chancellor, Philip Hammond, wasn’t keen on the idea.

“The 5p tax has already worked and dramatically reduced the use of plastic bags,” the source said. “If it's raised to 10p it looks like profiteering. Consumers don't want to feel like they are being hammered with more taxes on the cost of everyday living."

The Sun has also been tapping up its informants, and discovered that Hammond is “not particularly excited” by the 25p levy on disposable cups that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has been dreaming of. Such taxes are just going to hit working people, the source said. "We’re much more interested in if we can do something that we think is more intelligent that is very small but significant tax incentives on the retailers and producers which will make them change behaviour and hopefully not hurt customers at all."

The leaks came in the same week the government published a summary of the responses to its call for evidence on how to tackle single-use plastic waste. With 162,000 responses it was the largest response to a call for evidence in the Treasury’s history (if only it could encourage certain internet retailers and fast-food chains to engage with as much verve when it comes to paying tax).

Disappointingly there’s not much to say about the document, given that no decisions have been made. Tantalisingly, the government will now “consider the most promising policies in more depth” (before binning them and introducing something far less effective come next year’s budget).

But foodservice can’t rest easy yet. One of the proposals flagged for further consideration is “taxes or charges on specific plastic items that are commonly used on-the-go and littered, in order to encourage a reduction in production and use”. Cups, whether Hammond likes it or not, would be an obvious place to start, but what else?

Well, a consortium of environmental groups suggested that a “hierarchy of plastics” could be formed according to the necessity of the product as well as the necessity of including plastic (music to the ears of environmental consultants, no doubt). In other words, items would be categorised: some would be “essential” and “harder to replace”, while others would be classed as “problem” or “replaceable”. And then there would be a final group labelled “pointless”. Shouldn’t this be extended to all single-use packaging materials and products?

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