Plastics regulation: is that a flying pig I see?

Ministers have long been reluctant to act on single-use products in the face of industry resistance – but Philip Hammond’s budget suggests the tide is turning. By David Burrows.

It took well over a decade for the Westminster government to be convinced that a levy on plastic bags was a good idea – and in that time thousands (millions, perhaps) of pounds in public money were spent squabbling over just five pence. However, in October 2015, England finally caught up with Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland et al. And though Westminster managed to complicate what should have been a straightforward piece of legislation, few can now argue that those few pence have not made a big difference.

In fact, the success of the scheme – and lack of any noteworthy public backlash – has buoyed politicians and policymakers to ask: “What next?” This is a government – a Conservative one no less – that appears ready to regulate. Coffee cups and plastic bottles were already on the environment minister Michael Gove’s radar, and on Wednesday Philip Hammond, the chancellor, announced an even wider “call for evidence” on single-use products.

The details are scant, but charges on everything from takeaway food boxes and bubble wrap to plastic packaging and drinks bottles are reportedly on the table. It’s certainly up there with the sugar tax on drinks as a feelgood factor in what was otherwise a damp squib of a budget: this year has seen a tidal wave of interest in plastic pollution of the marine environment, and images highlighting the scale of the problem on the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” series recently will live long in the memories of the 10m-plus who witnessed them.

The show’s narrator, David Attenborough, said: “We’ve seen albatrosses come back with their belly full of food for their young and nothing in it. The albatross parent has been away for three weeks gathering stuff for her young and what comes out? What does she give her chick? You think it’s going to be squid, but it’s plastic.”

He said: “What we’re going to do about 1.5 degrees rise in the temperature of the ocean over the next 10 years, I don’t know, but we could actually do something about plastic right now.”

Food and packaging businesses are finding the thought of a clampdown on these hard-to-recycle items hard to stomach. The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) slammed what it viewed as a “fish and chips tax”. A press release reads: “We are very disappointed the Treasury has made public its statement of intent and said ‘… hopefully this is the beginning of the end for single-use plastic’, without consulting the packaging industry and its customers, including the UK takeaway and home delivery sectors which will be seriously under threat as a result of such a tax on single use plastics.”

The statement was rushed out on November 18th when news of the chancellor’s intentions first broke. I suggest rushed, because there are no figures to back up the claims; but also because the government has said no such thing, at least to my knowledge. The “beginning of the end” quote actually came from Greenpeace.

My point is not to expose shoddy public relations (FPA’s budget-day release was much more measured) but to highlight the fact that when policymakers give the merest whiff of “intervention” (this is only a call for evidence, don’t forget) the packaging and food sector says: “No way.” Or produces a hastily cobbled together voluntary scheme in a desperate attempt to delay any regulation. This has happened with coffee cups; it’s early days for the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, but ministers are impatient for results (and good news) and the big industry players sense it.

This month Greenpeace revealed that the British Retail Consortium, the British Soft Drinks Association, the Food and Drink Federation, INCPEN and the Packaging Foundation had written to the DEFRA minister Thérèse Coffey highlighting their concerns about deposit return schemes and urging her to resist attempts by the European Commission to toughen the rules on extended producer responsibility (EPR).

This proposal, inserted into the EU Waste Framework Directive as part of the Circular Economy package, “would require the financial contributions paid by producers within EPR schemes to cover the entire waste management costs for the products they place on the market”, the trade bodies wrote. Payments would increase from about £50m-100m to “as much as £1 billion” with “no net environmental benefit”.

Much like the FPA, the five bodies offered no evidence for this claim. The groups did admit that the EPR system needed a tweak or two, but there was no case “at this point in time to make radical change”. Really?

At one level they are seemingly getting their wish – last month the EU ruled out penalties on single-use plastic products in favour of public information campaigns on the problems plastics cause. “Nothing disciplines companies more than consumer practices,” the environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, told journalists at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta. “We are on the verge of changing consumer habits. I sense a turning point, like that we saw 10 to 15 years ago on climate change.”

Standing in the queue at Edinburgh Waverley station the other morning, I’d beg to differ. Of the 30 or so people served while I waited for my coffee, only one had a reusable cup: me. (And this in a country where the government is one step ahead of its Westminster counterparts on a coffee cup tax). It felt good not taking the disposable one that I’d have no ability to recycle. Better still that I was given a 10% discount for my efforts.

As the likes of the FPA have long argued, carrying a coffee-stained cup around with you for the rest of the day, before washing it and remembering to put it in your bag for the next, is a step on from taking your bags-for-life to the supermarket. They have a point (I am by no means a saint). But this shouldn’t be an excuse to do next to nothing.

The question being asked – more vocally than ever – is whether, in 2017, single-use packaging is fit for purpose. In a resource-constrained world where microplastics are being found everywhere from creatures living 2km beneath the sea to the salt on top of our tables, there is only one answer.

Consumers in ever-greater numbers understand this: 74% reportedly want a levy on single-use cups, while the market analyst Mintel suggests such items are already becoming “socially stigmatised”. Politicians are beginning to accept it; but (so far at least) the food and packaging industry at large has done little show they mean business. Andy Clarke’s intervention on the subject last month, when he called for supermarkets to stop using plastic packaging, was well-intentioned, but surely better put into practice while he was the boss of Asda.

Which brings me to innovation – could this be the silver lining to the dark cloud being cast over the food and packaging industry? Last month the winners of the $1m (£750,000) circular design challenge were announced. Among them was Cup Club, based in the UK, which involves a subscription service for reusable cups that can be dropped off at any participating store. TripCup, from the US, presented a disposable paper cup made with an origami-like technique that removes the need for a plastic lid; it’s currently made from compostable material but, given that this comes with its own headaches, the company is working on a 100% recyclable one too. The Indonesian start-up Evoware is developing food sachets made from seaweed that can be dissolved or eaten.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is involved in the initiative, said the winning innovations show what’s possible, but “these entrepreneurs cannot drive the transition alone. Major businesses, governments, and investors must make clear commitments and collaborate towards a circular economy for plastics.”

Some, like Marks & Spencer, are showing positive signs of radical but realistic thinking – the retailer wants to use a single polymer for all its packaging to boost recycling. Other big brands will have a much harder time convincing critics that they will act responsibly without the need for regulation.

Drinks manufacturers in particular are in the firing line. Around 38.5 million plastic bottles are used every day in the UK, but only just over half are recycled. On a global scale the figure is 480 billion a year, with fewer than half recycled and just 7% of those turned into new bottles.

Coca-Cola – a company that reportedly sells a sixth of the plastic bottles produced globally every year – recently announced an increase in its recycled content target from 40% to 50% by 2020 (globally, the figure is 7%). It didn’t appease campaigners, who pointed out that Ribena has used 100% recycled content in its bottles since 2007, while the water brand Belu is planning to shift all its bottles to 100% recycled material within 12 to 24 months.

Coca-Cola is not the only culprit. Danone’s target is to use 25% recycled PET in its bottles by 2020, which is way behind Coca-Cola. Pepsi, meanwhile, hasn’t even set a target – its sustainability plan simply says the company will “increase packaging recovery and recycling rates”, and “design 100% of its packaging to be recoverable or recyclable by 2025” (pretty much anything is recyclable).

Still, given its scale Coca-Cola is the plastic pollution pin-up. This month Greenpeace upped the pressure by launching a spoof video of the brand’s annual Holidays are Coming campaign. It’s unlikely to have the impact of the one created to spotlight Nestlé’s palm oil procurement policies in 2010 – 1.5m people watched the office worker open a KitKat and bite into an orangutan’s finger – but some certainly smell blood.

Tisha Brown is a Greenpeace oceans campaigner, and the one who suggested that “hopefully this is the beginning of the end for single-use plastic”. She also noted there is a “long way to go”. For plastic bags that was certainly the case – Ikea started charging for them back in 2006, while the Republic of Ireland has had a tax since 2002. But this is 2017: the government is armed with public support, statistics show the bag tax is working, and Brexit could well bring more freedom to regulate.

Two years ago, if you had asked me whether there would be more Pigouvian policies on plastics and packaging, my response would have involved airborne swine. Now I’m not so sure. And food and packaging firms that don’t recognise this shift could well come down to earth with a bump in 2018.

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