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It’s time to put an end to our throwaway culture

Materials should be designed to be used over and over, allowing us to extract maximum value from an item before its regeneration into a new product, writes Baroness Jones. | PA Images

3 min read

Government must transform the way Britain manages resources and waste. The technology exists; what’s needed are the incentives and business models to drive radical change.

When I was a child, my mother religiously washed and reused food plastic bags. I remember being slightly embarrassed by this, but she had lived through the war years where everything had a value and it was considered unpatriotic to throw things away.

Fast-forward 50 years and I am now washing out and reusing my plastic bags – and using old yogurt pots and plastic trays for seedlings on the allotment. A small gesture, perhaps, but I am one of many who find our over-reliance on single-use plastics both environmentally unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

Nowadays we are much more aware of the damage that plastic rubbish can do to our environment, and public demands for an end to unnecessary plastic packaging are welcome. All too often, however, alternative single-use products also impact adversely on the environment. Just like plastics, metal and glass can also cause land and marine litter.

The new trend for replacing plastic ready-meal food trays with coated fibreboard, and plastic cutlery with wood or compostable plastic, causes new types of waste which the UK’s recycling infrastructure cannot handle. Many of these alternatives even have a higher carbon footprint. We must not simply replace one polluting material with another.

There is also a growing imperative to cut down on our overall level of plastic waste, which the UK does not have the means to reprocess. As a result, we have been guilty of exporting our home-grown problem to countries that are often unable to process them effectively. This leads to polluting and dangerous overseas dumps.

Materials should be designed to be used over and over, allowing us to extract maximum value from an item before its regeneration into a new product

Last November, Malaysia took a stand and returned 42 containers of illegal plastic waste to the UK. In answer to a recent written question, I was told that the Environment Agency had inspected a thousand shipping containers of waste and blocked the export of over 200 of these. While this intervention is welcome, the current system is broken. We urgently need a plan to manage our own waste here in the UK. That makes sense in both environmental and employment terms.

While the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy has set out some helpful policies, and the Environment Bill contains some follow-up, progress is slow and littered with delayed consultations and deadlines.

Despite promises of action in the recent Budget, ministers are expected to miss their target of 50% recycling by the end of this year. If these are failing now, future targets will be an impossible stretch.

We have been waiting for an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme that will charge businesses for the cost of disposing of unsuitable packaging. A delayed bottle deposit return scheme would cut the amount going into landfill; and more consistency in local authority collections would make it easier for households and businesses to recycle effectively.

Ultimately, we need to change our mindset. The EU’s circular economy approach offers a way forward. Materials should be designed to be used over and over, allowing us to extract the maximum value from an item before its regeneration into a new product. The technology already exists but we need the incentives and business models to drive radical change.

We can all play our part in avoiding single-use products, but it needs ambition and leadership from the Government to deliver a national plan. There are exciting possibilities that new methods of resource efficiency could deliver to our economy. We now need ministers to seize this opportunity and end the throwaway culture for good.


Baroness Jones of Whitchurch is a Labour peer and shadow Defra minister.

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