Anna McMorrin: Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill to turn back the plastic tide

Posted On: 
11th June 2018

Ministers must legislate to ensure that producers of packaging are held accountable for the collection, recycling, and disposal of their products, writes Anna McMorrin

"Under the polluter pays principle a 50% penalty could be added for packaging that is not easily separated and is considerably disruptive to the recycling stream, such as coffee cups"
Credit: 
PA

On Wednesday 13th June, I’ll be introducing a Ten Minute Rule Bill to Parliament with the aim of convincing the government to force producers to take responsibility for the packaging they produce. Known as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, it would mean that local authorities and taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for increasingly expensive recycling and waste management, and the UK can lead the way in safeguarding our wildlife and oceans for our future generations.

Packaging pollution first came to my attention over ten years ago while working as a specialist adviser to Welsh ministers in the Welsh government. Back then, the impact that packaging and plastic pollution were having on our wildlife, natural resources and on climate change was becoming increasingly evident.

That’s why we introduced the 5p charge on single-use carrier bags that since 2011 has resulted in a 71% reduction in their usage; a perfect example of the difference that can be made when a government acts.

Unfortunately, it took the UK government four years to follow Wales’ success, and since then their commitment to addressing the overwhelming amount of single-use and non-recyclable packaging we use every day has been erratic.

As Sir David Attenborough said: “Wherever I go now, whether it be in the mountains, on the moors or on the coast there is discarded plastic everywhere. The government hasn’t a clue, by the time they act it will be too late.”

Currently, UK businesses are required by law to pay for recycling through compliance schemes. The more packaging they produce, the more they pay. However, the cost to business is low meaning there is no incentive for businesses to change.

Under the “polluter pays” principle a 50% penalty could be added for packaging that is not easily separated and is considerably disruptive to the recycling stream, such as coffee cups and black plastic packaging. Or conversely, a reduction in the levy could be given to producers who reduce the packaging weight of their product, or make it easier to recycle.

Without this producer responsibility enshrined into law, the cost of this recycling falls to councils that are already struggling to pay for vital services such as social care and housing, while also being asked to pick up the tab for recycling and waste management.

As a result, figures show that more than half of councils have had to cut budgets for collections and communications for kerbside plastics recycling. But if this bill becomes law, producers would either need to change the packaging of their products, or contribute to getting better recycling infrastructure.

A recent survey of 16-75-year olds found that almost all are concerned about the effects of plastic waste on the environment, with 54% willing to buy more products made from recycled materials. But there is only so much consumers can do if alternatives aren’t available.

In my own constituency of Cardiff North, students at Rhiwbeina Primary School have started the Kids Against Plastic campaign where they collect the crisps and chocolate wrappers and post them back to the manufacturers with a letter asking them to switch to packaging that can be recycled. A positive campaign that gives our next generation a voice – but are the producers listening? 

That’s why I am urging the government to take heed, drive innovation and respond to the growing number of voices becoming more and more frustrated by being unable to prevent packaging pollution.

The BBC’s Blue Planet II has had a massive impact on the British psyche. Who can forget the image of the turtle wrapped in a plastic sack, or the photo by John Cancalosi of the stork wrapped in a plastic bag? If ministers do not use their power to legislate then these images are going to keep coming.

Put simply, it’s time the government legislated so that producers take responsibility for their packaging.  

Anna McMorrin is Labour MP for Cardiff North. Her Ten Minute Rule Motion will take place on Wednesday 13 June.