A tax that ultimately increases costs for the consumer does not provide a viable solution - UK Plastics industry

Posted On: 
24th November 2017

Philip Law, Director General of the British Plastics Federation responds to the Chancellor's Budget announcement on plastics, which will affect an industry that employs 170,000 people in the UK.

Credit: 
BPF

In November’s budget, the Chancellor announced that he is initiating a call for evidence on whether certain plastic packaging products should be subject to further taxation. The British Plastics Federation I lead represents the UK plastics industry — an industry that employs over 170,000 people. We hope that this call for evidence conveys genuine willingness from the government to listen. No one wants plastics in the sea and we would all like to see the UK achieve a truly circular economy. However, we do not believe that taxing particular packaging products will achieve the desired results. 

The presence of plastics in the ocean is an issue that is rightly concerning the public. However, the BPF urges the government to look at options that address the root cause of this global problem, rather than embracing populist strategies in a scramble for an elusive ‘quick win’ in a complex situation. The facts must not be ignored. Only 2% of marine litter comes from Europe and the USA combined,  and the UK contributes just 0.2%. Obviously we would like to see that reduced to zero but it is very hard to understand how taxing certain products within the UK will have any notable impact on this global problem, which must be dealt with at an international level to effect real change.

When plastics unfortunately enter the marine environment from within the UK, it is typically due to the irresponsible disposal of plastic through littering or people dumping it in the sea. Placing a tax on one material without tackling the underlying behaviour will only change the composition of litter, not prevent it. Singling out plastics is also unlikely to have the impact on litter some may expect. The 2014 Litter Composition Survey of England by Keep Britain Tidy and INCPEN suggests that 17% of litter is plastic and 2.1% is plastic bottles, which account for only 20% of all beverage litter. 

The plastic carrier bag charge has reduced the use of these particular items — but plastic bags and packaging products are not analogous and such comparisons are not helpful. Plastic packaging products cannot simply be substituted in the same way that plastic bags can. If they were, we would considerably increase CO2 emissions from the UK due to increased food waste, an increase in the volume and weight of packaging, and an increase in the resources required to produce packaging from alternative materials. 

The plastic carrier bag charge has not reduced general littering either. It has actually increased since the charge was brought in. Granted, the behaviour of no longer requesting bags when you do not need them has been modified — but we need plastics packaging. It uses far less of our planet’s resources than the products it protects and has evolved to suit our modern lifestyles. 

Plastics offer unique, functional benefits and reduce food waste, CO2 emissions and protect products in ways no other material can. They cannot be substituted without negative consequences. If plastic packaging was replaced by alternative materials it would result in 2.7 times more greenhouse gases emissions — an extra 61 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents per year, which equates to an extra 21 million cars on the road.  

A tax that ultimately increases costs for the consumer does not provide a viable solution to today’s issues. Instead, the UK needs a strategy to increase ‘on-the-go’ recycling, a system enabling clear national communications and the enforcement of fines to make it universally understood that littering is unacceptable and irresponsible. 

The BPF would like to see a comprehensive strategy for collecting and recycling all items that are consumed ‘on-the-go’ and the harmonisation of kerbside collection schemes throughout the UK. Communicating to the public that we all have a part to play if we are to achieve a truly circular economy is also key. 

Ultimately, we all want to protect our planet, to stop plastics from wrongly entering the sea and for recycling rates to be maximised. The BPF wants to work with government to help the UK find the best solution to keeping plastics productive within a prospering circular economy. However, despite the emotive and troubling images in the media, taxing particular plastic packaging products simply does not make sense as a strategy and is not in our planet’s best interest