The plastic debate needs to move forward

Paco Hevia, Managing Director | Waste Treatment
18 December 2018
Image of plastic bottles in a net
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It’s been interesting to follow the twists and turns of the debate around plastics over the years.

Before it captured the attention of the public, the plastics debate largely centred inside the industry, with arguments over targets, funding and progress plus the problem of flatlining recycling rates for easy to recycle products like bottles.

Even today, only around half of the 7.7bn plastic water bottles consumed in the UK every year are separated for onward recycling. Around 11,000 are binned every minute, destined for landfill or energy recovery. For more difficult to recycle products, recycling rates are in single digits even where markets exist.

The humble carrier bag was the first ‘product’ to symbolise the need for change. Single-use and representing runaway overconsumption, the carrier bag levy was introduced only after retailers had failed to tackle the obvious problem.

Within six months, consumption dropped off of the proverbial cliff edge from the 2014 level of 7bn sold per year to around 2 billion; the number of single use carrier bags sold stood at 1.75bn at the last annual count.

Action to tackle other problems, products and formats looks to be quickening, compared to the eight years it took to move from signalling the need for action on carrier bags in 2007 until the introduction of the levy in October 2015. It’s worth noting that more than £50m was donated to good causes last year thanks to the levy.

And so we now look forwards, to both voluntary and fiscal action to reduce waste, encourage reuse and increase recycling.

Policy progress

As the Chancellor noted in his Parliamentary address, introducing the proposals for a new tax on single use plastics in last month’s Budget statement, “the tax will provide a clear economic incentive for businesses to use recycled material in the production of packaging which, in turn, will create greater demand for this material.”

However, it is important that this tax is not seen as the solution, as it is far from that. While the tax may create a push factor for businesses to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics or consumers to buy differently, and while it may also create a solid pull factor by encouraging investment in creating products with a higher recycled content, there are other equally important issues to address.

The first is the essential UK infrastructure that is necessary to service the demand - and fast. New facilities will need to pass through the planning system rapidly in order to be ready in time and grasp the opportunity, and so the government’s consultation and decision making must not dawdle.

The second is the clear need to not only review existing packaging recovery targets and mechanisms, but deliver wider reform as outlined in the recommendations of Wrap, Incpen and Advisory Committee on Packaging working group.

The third is to ensure not only that packaging is easier to recycle but that there is a continuing focus on and commitment to creating less waste and a genuine circular economy for materials handled in the UK.

Amey is committed to all three of these, extending its support, not just in words but in its own deeds. For example, in October we began trialling the roll-out of our zero plastic commitment at our head offices in Oxford, which has meant changes to what we buy and to employee behaviours.

This has to be part of a wider cultural shift in how all of us - at home, at work, at school, on the go - view, consume and conserve materials.

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