Will a government consultation on waste finally herald the much-needed crackdown? By David Burrows.
The government has published a consultation to explore whether taxes could be used to reduce the amount of single-use plastics, increase recycling rates and stimulate the development of alternatives. About £20 million from existing budgets will also be given to businesses and universities to research ways to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment.
But campaigners and other politicians criticised the government for kicking any meaningful decisions into the long grass. They also called for more pressure on food companies to cut the amount of plastic they place onto the market.
The government said it will assess the whole supply chain for single-use plastics, as well as alternative materials, reusable options and how to ensure more plastic is recycled. It “will look at how the tax system can help drive the technological progress and behavioural change we need,” said the chancellor, Philip Hammond, during his spring statement last week. “Not as a way of raising revenue, but as a way of changing behaviour and encouraging innovation.”
The 22-page consultation, which is open until May 18th, covers everything from how to define single-use plastics, which fiscal interventions could be most effective at reducing consumption and what the effects on businesses, consumers and local authorities would be. However, the document gives little away in terms of the government’s favoured approaches.
Greenpeace welcomed the news but accused the government of delaying the crackdown on plastic waste promised in January as part of its 25-year environment plan. Its senior oceans campaigner, Louise Edge, said there were concrete steps ministers could take now, such as rolling out a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles or banning plastic straws, and they should “get on with it”.
“Scotland is already planning to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019 and Iceland is working flat out to phase out plastic packaging in the next five years,” she said. By contrast, the UK government’s aim to phase out some throwaway plastic by 2042 has “started to look unambitious”.
In recent weeks the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has been involved in a Twitter spat with the first vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, over who has the most adventurous policies to tackle plastic waste.
Neither has the perfect plan, but the EU’s plastic strategy, published in January, is generally seen as the more ambitious. “The European Union is always more comfortable putting in place rules and regulations that require action from businesses,” Mike Childs, the head of policy at Friends of the Earth, told the Independent. “The UK is much more inclined to ask for voluntary measures,” he added, which is why “we have been a laggard on the environment for so many years, and why the European Union has improved our performance”.
DEFRA, or more specifically Gove, has not taken this well – a number of the department’s recent blogposts have attempted to big up the policies in place and the proposals set out in the 25-year environment plan. In a recent podcast for the Telegraph Gove suggested that EU rules meant he couldn’t ban plastic straws. This isn’t quite true – it’s not easy, but neither is it impossible.
There is little doubt that many are becoming impatient with the government. Mary Creagh, the chair of the Commons environmental audit committee, said last week that “despite warm words they plan no real action”.
Creagh made the comments after publication of the government’s response to her committee’s recent inquiry into disposable packaging, which recommended a 25p “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups. The government would rather encourage shops to offer discounts and leave it up to industry, through its Paper Cup Manifesto, to come up with solutions.
The response reads: “We are pleased that major coffee retail chains are taking action to reduce single-use coffee cups by offering discounts to customers with reusable cups and are putting in place the infrastructure to ensure cups can be collected for recycling. The government would like to see this service offered by all businesses selling disposable coffee cups.”
Creagh said the government was ignoring the evidence that taxes worked best. Look at the impact of the 5p charge on plastic bags – a success story the government is all too willing to repeat (though it has been reported that this was led by the Liberal Democrats under rules set out by the EU). Will this new consultation force the government to change its mind, and which plastic packaging will it target if so? It’s decision time. And every day the government wastes, more plastic ends up leaking into the environment, poisoning wildlife and, eventually, winding up on the public’s dinner plates.