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The Friday Digest: Environment plan lacks teeth

The UK government has lofty ambitions for the environment – on paper at least. This week’s environmental improvement plan was described in Rishi Sunak’s foreword as “a blueprint not just to halt the decline of nature in our country but to reverse it”.

Reaction to the plan – a legal requirement under the Environment Act 2021 – suggested the government had been somewhat generous in marking its own homework. Greenpeace described it as a “roadmap to a cliff edge” containing “a threadbare patchwork of policies that fail to tackle many of the real threats to our natural world”. WWF said “we need more than warm words on paper, we need investment and immediate action from the government”, while the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health urged policy makers to go “much further, much faster” in areas such as water and air pollution.

Defra did manage to muster some supportive words to paste in its press release but even these hinted at the ongoing gulf between words and deeds. “The package is broad and most welcome and important. It will now require efforts across government and across society to translate its intent into action,” said Natural England chair Tony Juniper.

A recent report by the Office for Environmental Protection, an independent body set up to monitor environmental improvement across 10 overarching goals, found that progress is “not demonstrably on track” for any of the 23 distinct environmental targets set by the government.

This latest plan is designed to accelerate that progress. New commitments include a multi-million pound species survival fund and a call for evidence to explore the potential for technological innovation in the production of coffee cups, and behavioural science in how they are used.

Keeping with the drinks theme, the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for England from October 2025 is identified as key to achieving the goal of maximising resources and minimising waste (the government has a target to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042).

Last week it was revealed that the scheme for England will not include glass bottles – a move that divided opinion among stakeholders. Greenpeace suggested the decision to exclude glass “reeks of corporate lobbying”, however The Times carried an article by Scottish National Party MSP Fergus Ewing in which he argued that a Scottish scheme including glass “cannot work” and that “if glass is removed from the scheme, costs to producers and retailers can be saved and a better system can be delivered on time”.

The Grocer reported that supermarket boss held crisis talks with the Scottish government’s circularity minister Lorna Slater this week in which they argued that without a “complete operational blueprint” by the end of February, the Scottish DRS was destined for a disastrous start in August with dozens of key questions still unanswered.

Elsewhere this week, the government confirmed the end of its free range egg marketing derogation, which allowed free range eggs to be marketed as such despite birds having been housed indoors since October due to avian influenza. From February, eggs originating from free range flocks must be labelled as ‘barn eggs’ to comply with labelling requirements. The RSPCA said the public could still make informed choices about the eggs they buy by choosing ones that carry the RSPCA Assured label.