I READ THE 25 YEAR ENVIRONMENT PLAN SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO
(Well the part that concerns plastics anyway)
…I haven’t read it all, it’s 151 pages after all (not even including the 3 annexes) and although I would love to comment on more aspects of this plan, I have restrained myself to the sections that concern plastic pollution and waste. Much restraint.
Here is the plan for reference: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/673203/25-year-environment-plan.pdf
We shall start on page 86. With a snappy title.
‘Achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042’
All avoidable plastic waste to be eliminated by the end of 2042! An early retirement for me then, although I was hoping to be out of a job sooner than that. 25 years is a long time to keep disposable plastic around, we’ll be up to our knees in it by that point.
The introduction to this section then goes on to say ‘Urgent action to reduce plastic waste in the marine and open environment is needed and is vital for the future of our planet’. This appears to contradict the proposed 25 year timeline. ‘Urgent action’ normally means do it now, as far as my understanding of the phrase goes.
The first example of action that the Gov will take is: ‘Looking across the whole lifecycle, launching a call for evidence in 2018 seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single use plastics waste.’
Which, as far as I am aware, they have already done, especially in concern with bottle deposit schemes. (See the report below) This is not a promising start, and will particularly upset those campaigning for the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme who have carefully collected lots of evidence in support and presented it to the government already. This report by the Environmental Audit Committee (who are there to assess how any policy the government makes affects the environment) makes the case pretty obvious, and concludes that a bottle deposit scheme is recommended.
Then there is the Latte Levy recommendation to consider. As a first action then, it doesn’t appear to move us forward at all. No further mention of a bottle deposit scheme or Latte Levy is made in the action section either. Hmm.
A four-point plan of action which relates to the stages of use for disposable plastic is then set out.
1) Production stage
The plan explains that the Government want producers to take more responsibility for the lifecycle of their products, and to ‘rationalise’ packaging labels to make sure plastics are more easily identified so that they can be sorted for recycling. So far, so good.
They state that they want to ‘create a better market for recycled plastic.’ Manufacturers often don’t often opt for recycled plastic as it’s more expensive, perceived to be lower quality, and there is less infrastructure to create recycled plastic in the UK than to make new plastic. This should be an easy action to implement though, as the British Plastics Federation say that there is a clear wish by those in the plastic industry who work with converting plastics in the UK to use more recycled material, as they are aware that the end customer prefers the environmental benefits of using recycled plastic. (Source below.) Poor stability of supply is listed as one of the key reasons why it is not used more often, price is less of an issue. This comes from the BPF themselves, which shows a willingness by plastic producers to use the more expensive material, so to ‘create a better market for recycled plastic’ we actually need to improve dramatically our recycling infrastructure. With China no longer accepting our sub-par contaminated plastics, there is a real need to improve these services and quickly. If this can be done, recycled plastic use could well take over virgin plastic as time goes on.
Building on the microbead ban, the government are thinking of banning ‘other problematic materials where suitable alternatives exist’. I wonder whether microfibres are what is in mind here? Or maybe other microplastics in personal care products, not just microbeads. This is very vague, so I don’t see much progress here. It will be up to microplastics campaigners to provide direction if we want the government to take further action.
Here is a confession – ‘Analysis by Innovate UK shows that we have invested approximately £54m of public research and development money on plastics innovation in the past seven years’ …so the UK has put a lot of money into the plastics industry (“it is one of our top 10 exports!* How can you blame us?” the government cry) but now the Gov is suggesting we should give plastics manufacturers even more money. Only this time we should make sure that plastic producers use it more wisely, maybe like making their products recyclable. This to me just looks like a big concession to the plastics industry to keep the peace and make sure they can continue to profit despite the lack of public appetite for plastic. Someone tell me otherwise.
2) Consumption stage
The Gov have pledged to ‘reduce the amount of plastic in circulation through reducing demand for single-use plastic’. How? By removing all disposable plastics from central government offices. This is clearly Michael Gove’s attempt to regain credibility for his office after it was found out a few months ago that the environment department’s (DEFRA) offices used 1400 disposable coffee cups a day. He’s been photographed with a reusable coffee cup recently, so thank goodness he is starting to take his job seriously and you know, be less of a hypocrite.
The Gov plan to extend the 5p plastic bag charge to all retailers. As it stands, in England, if a company has less than 250 employees it doesn’t have to charge. In Wales and Scotland, the 5p is extended to everyone regardless. Why is England always so slow on the uptake?! The policy will be voluntary to begin with, as the Gov will be ‘exploring whether compulsory options are needed if voluntary agreements prove ineffective.’ This makes no sense. Make it a legal requirement already! Plus, it is also an EU requirement that by the end of 2018 in its member states to either ban plastic bags from being given away freely or do something else major to stop their use. England is just complying with an EU directive, this isn’t something the government has done just because it suddenly hates plastic.
The Gov will be supporting water companies, restaurants and retailers to make refilling our water bottles less embarrassing. I have personally never had a problem filling up my water bottle in public, be that in bathrooms or asking for refills. I need water to live. I will fill up wherever. Not everyone is as brazen at filling up their water bottles as me, so this is a good initiative.
Plastic free aisles in supermarkets may soon be a reality! The Gov is working with WRAP to see how this can be implemented and encouraged which is great news. …Although I would rather see a drive to reduce plastic packaging in general. A plastic free aisle is a narrow focus, I say don’t give consumers the option to choose, make manufacturers responsible for their own packaging life cycle and get rid of all unnecessary packaging.
3) End of use
The Gov will try and increase the use of the current ‘on pack’ recycling labelling, and try to enforce its use. Sorry I mean ‘encourage’, there isn’t much enforcing going on anywhere in this plan! Hopefully they will make it easier to understand for people trying to sort their recycling then.
The Litter Strategy will continue to be implemented to reduce littering. …This is a whole other thing, which I won’t go into here, see page 91 of the plan for more info.
4. End of Life/Waste Management stage
The Gov are working with WRAP to try and standardise recycling across the UK, ensuring that councils collect the same materials. Under the current system, local authorities differ wildly in their waste management strategies, especially in terms of what is or isn’t recycled. It would be amazing to see a UK wide recycling system rather than the piecemeal awkward arrangement we currently have.
The Gov want to work with the waste management industry to increase the amount of plastics collected and recycled. Can’t argue with that, get on with it already!
The Gov want to work on creating a standard for bioplastic bags and they do stress that is ‘while also recognising the need to avoid microplastics pollution.’ Hopefully this means banning ‘degradable’ plastics that use oxo-degradation or photodegradation additives to break plastic down into microplastics whilst appearing to be more eco-friendly. The EU has some standards for biodegradability and compostability which should be used.
Then they go on about collaborating with WRAP and the Ellen McArthur foundation which is good, hand it over to the experts already please! More info on both these initiatives working towards a circular economy below.
Apparently the UK will ‘demonstrate international leadership’ when it comes to tackling plastic pollution. I mean, I hope we do, but we are actually embarrassingly behind the US on this environmental concern. Working together on an international level to tackle plastic pollution is essential if the UK actually wants to live up to these promises.
Ready for action?
…So that’s the plan. Well, the part of the 25 year plan which concerns plastics and the main actions that will be taken by the Government to address these issues anyway.
The main problem I see with a 25 year plan, is that when a plan deliberately extends past the current term of government, whether it will be put into action is debateable. To an extent, a lot of these ‘actions’ are nothing more than camouflaging their responsibilities to enforce European regulations and a way to tackle mounting waste problems now that China won’t accept our recycling waste. This is not the work of a government fully committed to dealing with the problem of plastic, but a knee jerk reaction to public opinion and pressure from other countries.
Long term plans are all well and good, as planning for the future is obviously a sensible thing to do. I do personally feel, however, that long term plans reduce the sense of urgency to act now. We’ve planned for it, so we can take a break. Long term plans are great for giving speeches with inspiring hopeful rhetoric, and there is plenty of that in the plan, believe you me, but they are less helpful when it comes to actually doing anything. Planning becomes procrastinating. Especially when all the evidence has already been presented to you and the evidence clearly suggests acting sooner rather than later. While this plan does inspire hope, it does not provide any promises. There are a lack of quantifiable objectives and deadlines laid out in this plan.
It is most important to act, not plan. I want to see more actions like the Microbead Ban taken! Hopefully we will see legislation passed from some of these plans soon. Words speak louder than actions generally it seems in politics, so let’s make sure that these words lead to actions and don’t become false promises.
What do you think of the plan set out by the government to reduce plastic waste and pollution? Does it go far enough? Is it the inspiring call to action you’ve been waiting for? Let me know!
Planning on making sure the Gov follow through with these plans,
Yours in exhaustion after analysing all that vagueness,