25-year plan due this week as PM talks plastic to Andrew Marr

The government’s long-awaited 25-year plan for the environment is likely to be launched by Prime Minister Theresa May this Thursday (11 January) as she gives a major speech on the environment, providing a long-term strategy for green policy.

Though a separate waste and resources strategy has now been confirmed, due some time in the back end of 2018, the plan will likely show the government’s priorities and overall strategy with the environmental turbulence of Brexit looming.

The plan was originally due to be published in 2016, but delays caused by the EU referendum and two general elections meant that it was not ready until last summer. Then, following Michael Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary, the strategy was delayed once more to allow the new secretary to recast the plan in his image, with the new plan believed to be very different to that drafted last year.

Ahead of the launch May has hinted at a potential five pence charge being applied to plastic bottles in much the same vein as the plastic bag charge of 2015.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 yesterday (7 January), the Prime Minister commented, unprompted: “In 2015, we introduced the 5p charge on carrier bags, on plastic bags. Actually we now see nine billion fewer bags being used.

“It’s making a real difference. We want to do the same in relation to single-use plastic.  Nobody who watched Blue Planet will doubt the need for us to do something.”

Public awareness around the issue of plastic packaging has perhaps never been higher, due in part to the massive viewing figures recorded for David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which was the most watched programme of 2017. The show’s focus on the harm done by humans to the marine environment has brought new attention to the problem of ocean plastics, and data has revealed that searches of ‘plastic recycling’ rose by 55 per cent after the final episode.

Many politicians have been keen to take note of the ‘Attenborough effect’: Philip Hammond referenced the show in his Autumn Budget in November last year, in which he announced a call for evidence seeking information on how fiscal measures could help to reduce single-use plastic waste, ‘building on the success of the existing plastic carrier bag charge’.

Previously, in October 2017, Environment Secretary Michael Gove launched a call for evidence on the efficacy of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles, whereby an extra charge would be applied to plastic bottles which could be reclaimed by consumers on returning the bottle for recycling. A DRS was recommended by MPs in Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which published a report into the problem of plastic packaging waste in December.

The concept of a DRS for plastic bottles has been debated for some time, with Scotland already planning the introduction of such a scheme. Garnering the support of environmental charities such as Greenpeace as well as a number of larger retailers, including Iceland and the Co-op, the possibility has also stirred controversy for local authorities, with Lee Marshall of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) claiming at an EAC hearing that a DRS would “likely” have a negative impact on local authorities, undermining the existing kerbside collection systems.

However, a simple charge without a return scheme is not something that has been recommended by the EAC for plastic bottles; in fact, this has more recently been suggested in relation to disposable coffee cups. In the committee’s second report on single-use drinks packaging, it called for a 25 pence charge to be added to all drinks sold in a single-use disposable cup, which due to their mix of plastic and paper are difficult to recycle. The report stated a charge in this instance could cut usage by up to 30 per cent.

But while plastic bags were free before the charge was introduced in 2015, plastic bottles already have a value, and so how great a deterrent an extra 5p would be to shoppers remains to be seen. This could be a interpretation of the single-use plastic tax considered in the Budget, though that is due to be consulted on this year. 

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