The Government Perspective on Plastic
We’re all shouting about plastic, and trying to reduce our plastic consumption in our own homes. Small businesses, restaurant chains, and even big supermarkets are making changes. But what are governments doing to stem the plastic tide? Are they just leaving it up to us, or have they finally jumped on the band wagon? Read on to find out...
Improper waste management is costly for the environment, for our health, and for the economy, and often, the cost of addressing its impacts is higher than the cost of providing a solution in the first place. Now we can’t send our plastic away to Asia piles of rubbish are building up at waste facilities and ports, and there are rising fears of waste crime. FINALLY governments are waking up to the dire need to do something about this global crisis.
Involvement of global leaders is vital for long lasting change. Without legally binding agreements, big corporations can continue to be driven by profits, and push costs onto consumers. This has to stop. We need the carrot, and the stick, to effectively eliminate plastic. And let’s be honest, we can’t just blame corporations. We’re all a bit stuck in our ways. You might be ok with swapping out a plastic straw for a paper one, or carrying round your cute reusable coffee mug, but would you really commit to trekking an extra hour (or more) to find your local greengrocers and zerowaste store, when there’s a Tesco just round the corner with everything you need in one place? The key is eliminating even the option of plastic, and thus minimising the need for behavioural change. And this is where government policy comes in. Just as government can impose bans on products used by consumers (think drinks stirrers, cotton buds, and straws), it can also incentivise plastic producers.
So what kind of things are needed?
Friends of the Earth have identified 5 categories for plastics to decide what needs to go
Pointless plastic: Socially useless plastics that don’t need replacing and can be phased out without significant changes.
Replaceable plastic: Useful plastic that can easily be replaced with less socially and environmentally harmful alternatives.
Problem plastic: Particularly harmful plastics like polystyrene, and those that are hard to recycle like black plastic food trays.
Harder to replace plastic: Socially and environmentally valuable plastics that can’t be replaced without major behavioural, infrastructural and systemic change.
Essential plastic: Such as in hospitals, research labs and in enabling quality of life for people with disabilities.
Immediate action to phase out categories 1-3 is already underway, whilst other plastics will require longer term solutions. Some plastic is here to stay, but if we can eliminate all non-essential plastics, we will have made significant progress.
Countries and cities are phasing out pointless plastics that can easily be removed without significant changes. We covered a handful of these at the beginning of our campaign, and the good news is the full list is so exhaustive it’s too long to share here (woo!). But a common theme across them all are bans or restrictions of plastic bags, bottles, straws, utensils, cups, plates, microbeads, and styrofoam.
Let’s face it, the world revolves around money (sadly), so what better than to offer a helping hand to allow companies to make more of it, whilst also helping the planet? Tax rebates, R&D funds, technology incubation, public-private partnerships, could all help give a nudge to plastic producers to innovate and find solutions, sooner rather than later! And companies who are swapping out packaging materials can be given a pat on the back for their efforts. Luckily, with increasing public outcry and demands for transparency from stakeholders, shareholders, consumers and NGOs, organisations should be jumping at the challenge.
Just as offering financial incentives, increasing taxes and imposes limits on how much and what type of plastic can be produced can be extremely effective. There’s even been talk of a plastic tax which would apply to any plastic manufactured or imported with less than 30% recycled content. We like the sound of that!
Deposit return schemes (DRS)
Schemes where consumers get money back for returning plastic have been hugely successful, with countries where they’ve been implemented collecting up to 97% of their bottles. They increase recycling, and reduce littering but to be effective they need to be easy to use, and include various size and types of bottles. Sweden and Germany have been running successful deposit schemes for years, so it’s about time they were implemented elsewhere!
Extended Producer Responsibility
Did you know that in the UK taxpayers foot 90% of the bill for recycling of waste? The ‘polluter pays’ principle is changing that, and making packaging producers responsible for the products they’re putting on the market. Because producers also become responsible for sorting out what happens to their packaging after it’s thrown away, it also encourages redesign to allow recovery and recycling of waste.
As you can see, many things are being and have been done. And we’ve only covered a few here. Other changes including improved waste management and product labelling, and increased public outreach and education are in the works too. It is very encouraging to see that our leaders are finally joining us in the fight against plastic. And just because the government is finally getting involved, doesn’t just mean we can sit back and let them sort it out. We ALL need to continue to work together, help one another, and make changes ourselves, if we have any hope of fixing this mess.
To find out more about what the UK government is doing to tackle plastic pollution, you can read the full report on UK packaging reform here