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2018 must be the year the Government starts to turn back the plastic tide

4 min read

The Environment Secretary has generated a lot of good headlines recently - but now he needs to match ambition with action, writes Mary Creagh

2017 was the year that our plastic pandemic hit the headlines. Our recycling rates are stalling and we are set to miss our target of recycling 50% of household waste by 2020. There are no long term targets, which is harming industry confidence. The BBC’s wonderful Blue Planet II and Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign brought home the terrible damage our throwaway society wreaks on our ocean life. The last thing we think of when we buy a bottle of water, takeaway coffee or use a body scrub is the environmental impact of the cup or bottle and microbeads. 2018 must be the year the Government starts to turn back the plastic tide.

The UK uses an astonishing 13 billion plastic bottles every year. Just over half are recycled, but 5 billion are landfilled, littered or incinerated. Walk along any beach in the UK and you will find plastic marking the line of the tide. In the sea, plastic debris breaks down into smaller particles –microplastics – which are eaten by marine life. They enter the human food chain, if you’ve eaten six oysters, you will have eaten 50 particles of plastic. The human health impacts of microplastics and their smaller cousins, nanoplastics, are not yet understood, but the Chief Medical Officer is investigating, and will publish her research later this year.

We should learn from countries which have successfully tackled the plastic bottle litter problem. Germany, Norway, and Sweden all have deposit return schemes, a small charge when you buy your drink of 10-20p, which you would get back when you take the bottle back. They recycle over 90% of their plastic bottles. My committee has called for the Government to introduce a deposit return scheme in the UK.

Polluters should pay for the cost of collecting and reprocessing their plastic waste. The Government should change the producer responsibility obligation scheme to create a more resource-efficient economy. Packaging producers do not currently bear the full financial burden of recycling their packaging – it is left to taxpayers to foot the bill. The Government should make it more expensive to produce packaging that is hard to recycle, and cheaper for packaging that is easy to recycle. Introducing a mandatory minimum level of recycled material, at 50%, in plastic packaging would also create a market for plastic recyclate and help drive up recovery and recycling rates. 

The UK also has a coffee cup problem. Most people think that disposable coffee cups are recyclable because they are made of cardboard. But consumers have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Many cups bear a recycling symbol, despite the fact that almost none are recycled. Over 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are landfilled, littered or incinerated every year in the UK – enough to stretch around the planet five and a half times. Five hundred thousand are littered every day. Major coffee shop chains have ignored this waste mountain, and the Government has sat on its hands.

My Committee has called for a 25p ‘latte levy’ on takeaway coffee cups to raise awareness and reduce the number of single-use coffee cups we throw away.  The 5p plastic bag charge has meant we have used 9 billion fewer bags since it was introduced – proof that a small charge on single use items changes behaviour. We want to see the money raised invested in more reprocessing facilities. At the moment, only three sites in the country can recycle disposable coffee cups. We also want more ‘binfrastructure’ so that people can recycle their cups on the go. 

Big coffee chains have been silent on this environmental scandal, and we were clear that they should do their bit to solve the problem. We want the Government to send a strong signal to industry: if disposable coffee cups are not all recycled by 2023, they should be banned.

The Environment Secretary has generated a lot of good headlines recently. But now he needs to match ambition with action. The 25-year environment plan lacks scale and ambition. We cannot wait 25 years to tackle ‘avoidable’ plastics, whatever they are. This month a ban on manufacturing microbeads, which my committee called for in 2016 finally came into effect. A few years ago microbeads were dismissed as a bottom-of-the-pile issue. A ‘latte levy’, deposit return scheme and making the polluters pay for their plastic waste are bold but necessary steps to turn back the plastic tide. 

The Chinese ban on waste imports has seen the price of recyclate tumble from £100 per tonne last year to £20 per tonne. That means a plastic and paper crisis is set to push council tax bills up. The plastic challenge has begun. The Government’s waste strategy must rise to meet it. 


Mary Creagh is chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.

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