Government ‘treating symptoms, not cause’ of plastic pollution, says Green Alliance

A new report from think tank Green Alliance has criticised the government’s plastics policy for ‘failing to deal with the root of the problem’.

An image of plastic packaging waste

The report, entitled ‘Fixing the system: why a circular economy for all materials is the only way to solve the plastic problem’ and produced for the Circular Economy Task Force, highlights the shortcomings of the current approaches to plastic pollution, explaining that governments and businesses are focusing only on certain polymers and individual uses rather than taking a fundamental approach.

Green Alliance describes the UK Government’s approach to plastic – as laid out in the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy – as ‘piecemeal’, highlighting that the government’s ban on microbeads in wash-off cosmetics ignores 90 per cent of the intentionally added microplastics released into the environment.

Unintended consequences

While the government has committed to banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020, Green Alliance has warned of the unintended consequences of such a ban, suggesting that businesses will be encouraged to substitute plastic for alternative single-use materials, for example paper straws, which will continue to cause environmental damage, as highlighted in the think tank’s previous report on alternative materials for single-use drinks containers.

Read more: Plastic alternatives may cause greater environmental harm, says new report

The report explains that replacing plastic with other single-use materials could increase carbon emissions, citing research conducted by PwC on behalf of the Circular Economy Task Force, which revealed that switching all current consumption of plastic packaging on a like-for-like basis could almost triple associated carbon emissions from 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to 4.8 billion tonnes CO2e.

Moreover, while the presence of toxic chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenols in plastic has been the source of significant public concern, little attention has been given to the use of harmful substances in alternative materials – bisphenol A (BPA) is present as a coating in metal containers, while over 250 chemicals with potential health concerns have been detected in recycled cardboard used for food packaging.

Fundamental system change

Criticising the short-sightedness of the government’s current plastics strategy, the report draws upon recent research from Greenpeace and the EIA showing that the charge for single-use plastic carrier bags, introduced in England in 2015, has led to a dramatic rise in the use of thicker ‘bags for life’, which is potentially increasing the total use of plastic.

Green Alliance therefore calls on the government to take a more holistic approach to tackling ‘throwaway living’ by considering full lifecycle impacts of materials, for example, by encouraging reuse and improving recycling infrastructure, especially for compostable plastics.

Colin Church, Chief Executive of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and Chair of the Circular Economy Task Force, commented: “The way we consume and waste resources in the UK is unsustainable, and it’s not just plastic that has an impact. What is needed now is an approach that leads the UK to a truly circular economy where all materials are properly valued and any problems they cause are minimised as much as possible.”

Libby Peake, Head of Resource Policy at Green Alliance, added: “Removing one material from a dysfunctional system still leaves us with a dysfunctional system. Plastic pollution is a particularly visible sign that we don’t properly value the resources we use and shows that environmental harm is hardwired into the throwaway culture. The government has to get to the root of the problem to change this, rather than only tackling high profile symptoms in a piecemeal way.”

You can read the full report, ‘Fixing the system: why a circular economy for all materials is the only way to solve the plastic problem’, on the Green Alliance website.

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