Plastic action promised* *subject to consultation

Laura Foster By: Laura Foster
Date posted: 18 December 2018

Dr Laura Foster, MCS Head of Clean Seas, gives her thoughts on the Waste and Resources Strategy for England, which was announced today.

The Waste and Resources Strategy for England is a long awaited document. Whenever we at MCS asked a question of government officials in recent months about how waste was going to be dealt with, we were told ‘details will be in the waste and resource strategy’. It all sounded like a treasure map was coming to solve all our waste woes.

So what is the verdict? Well there are a lot of positive noises about moving in the right direction, but we have been here regularly in the last 18 months. We see the various headlines, ministerial promises to “set the global gold standard” on the environment; It all sounds amazing, and then you notice the little asterisk, ‘*subject to consultation’.

Plastic bottle pile Public awareness and concern over plastics in the marine environment has never been greater. “Single use” is the word of the year according to Collins Dictionary, and the winning international statistic of the year is that 90.5% of plastic waste has never been recycled.

We must however recognise that the speed of change needs to reflect the rate of change of thing we are trying to influence. The Resources and Waste Strategy takes us from a slow amble to a walk - we need to turn this to a jog and a canter. Meanwhile, the industry has just given itself jet propulsion - plastic production is predicted to increase by four fold by 2050.

We know that the public demands that the problem of single use plastic is addressed, but product manufacturers and packaging producers have been working away at kicking big decisions down the road. Already this morning, we see industry on a PR offensive, with manufacturers working to challenge change.

So what is their objection? One of the key changes highlighted in the document is that producers, instead of paying the current paltry 10% will have to pay for the full cost of product disposal. The industry is saying that this ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) will cost the consumer too much. What they don’t mention is that we, the consumers, already pick up the bill via local councils having to pay for disposal of poorly designed packaging and products. And the cost to the environment is not mentioned by producers at all.

DRS_FB

Norway runs a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for bottles. It is not a legal requirement - the government just taxes producers punitively if they don’t get enough bottles back for recycling. It came about because industry got together to design the system which turned out to be a Deposit Return Scheme (they get over a 95% return rate, in case you are interested). This is the chosen solution by the industry in Norway - ironic given companies’ objections in this country.

DRS Penguin How is DRS relevant when it comes to Extended Producer Responsibility? Well, in the Norwegian DRS the system charges a producer more if it is harder to recycle, because it has less value upon recycling. We should, like Norway, be forcing companies to recognise that they need to think about what happens to a product at end of use, because end of use isn’t the end of it. So better designed products will be better for our wallets and better for the environment.

So, this strategy appears to be delaying things somewhat: I’m not sure why I’m being asked to wait until 2023 for EPR and a DRS. Will public interest in plastic still be as pressing then? And, sorry, did I mention they are both ‘*subject to consultation’?