We are at a tipping point for plastic in the UK
It’s time to seize the initiative and put an end to plastic pollution both at home and abroad, says Anne Main
The resources and waste strategy published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last December listed among its top aims and concerns the reduction of single-use plastics and the need to reform the plastic packaging system.
Both are equally important steps in the journey towards a cleaner, greener and, importantly, plastic-free environment. They are also key if we want to transition to a domestic economic model that values resources above convenience and helps us leave the environment in a better state for future generations.
We are now at a tipping point for plastic waste management in the UK. The momentum gained by the BBC’s shocking Planet Earth II images and the consequent so-called ‘David Attenborough effect’ remains as strong as ever.
Industry and businesses have aligned behind the UK Plastics Pact, and most if not all the plastic supply chain is now deeply convinced of, and committed to, the need for profound change in our relationship with plastics.
In the year since I was selected by my colleagues to chair the APPG on the Prevention of Plastic Waste we’ve seen a wealth of activity in parliament around this issue; from private members’ bills and Westminster Hall debates to oral questions and the introduction of an early day motion, signed and supported by MPs from all parties, calling for a ban on exports of plastics for recycling.
Not only does industry need to hear from consumers and take action to stop plastic pollution making it into our rivers, shores and landfill, but we must also ensure, as a nation, that we are not inflicting the same problem upon other countries who may not be geared up to deliver appropriate recycling.
I have raised this conundrum, and I am one of the signatories of the plastic packaging plan, a report by cross-party public policy thinktank Policy Connect that calls for a target of net-zero export of plastic packaging collected for recycling to be set for 2030 at the latest.
Exporting our plastic packaging waste has been common practice for too long, and the sheer volume of it is a testament to how well established the system has been until now. Between 2010 and 2017 we exported 4.15m tonnes of plastic packaging – enough to fill Wembley stadium 26 times – and in the first three-quarters of 2018, 64% of all plastic packaging waste collected for recycling in the UK was exported.
'Hasn't the time come for us to deal with our own plastic mess?'
Early that same year, China – the biggest recipient of our plastic waste and that of most of high-income countries around the world – announced a ban on plastic imports. With China no longer taking our waste, we inevitably shifted towards other countries in the region that would. The question, at this point, becomes obvious: hasn’t the time come for us to deal with our own plastic mess?
I am convinced that the UK environment, its economy and position as a global leader can benefit immensely if we take the necessary steps in the right direction. We have the chance to put an end to plastic pollution both at home and abroad, and we can do this while helping to grow a solid industry, create jobs, and develop infrastructure and technological leadership.
The unprecedented attention on the issue of plastic pollution; the general agreement across the plastic supply chain and the government’s resources and waste strategy consultations mean we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve this puzzle.
Solving it together as a nation and within our own shores is not only right, but necessary. We must not embrace an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality that sees vast quantities of waste plastic shipped abroad. Instead, we should export our expertise and work towards the global reduction of plastic waste.
Anne Main is Conservative MP for St Albans and chair of the APPG on the Prevention of Plastic Waste