House of Commons Library releases plastic waste briefing paper

The House of Commons Library has released a wide-ranging briefing paper on plastic waste ahead of the return of the Environment Bill, expected at the end of the month.

The briefing paper, published on Tuesday (7 January), covers the scale of plastic waste in the UK, the environmental issues of plastic waste, issues surrounding how we talk about and define plastic and government and EU policy ambitions on the matter.

The House of Commons Library is a research and information service based in the UK Parliament. It is independent of government and publishes impartial research to inform all MPs.

The government has made tackling plastic pollution a key part of its environment policy. The 25 Year Environment Plan pledged to eradicate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, and the Resources and Waste Strategy made a number of pledges to deal with the torrent of plastic waste in the UK – estimated at 4.9 million tonnes by WWF in 2014.

An image of plastic bottles of waterThe House of Commons Library's briefing paper anticipates the return of the Environment Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in October 2019, and passed its second reading, before falling due to the dissolution of Parliament ahead of the 2019 general election in December.

The Bill included policies on extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging, which promised to make plastic packaging producers cover the full costs of recycling their products, a deposit return scheme (DRS) for disposable drinks containers, a tax on plastic packaging that uses less than 30 per cent recycled content and consistency in recycling collections.

The responses to the first round of consultations on the aforementioned policies were released in July last year, and the industry awaits the release of the second raft of consultations.

Few changes are expected from the original Environment Bill, though one major new piece of policy is expected, with the Conservatives promising to end the export of plastic waste to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.

The briefing paper recognises the issues for local authorities when it comes to finding adequate infrastructure to deal with collected plastic waste, noting the squeeze on export markets triggered by China’s decision to ban the import of post-consumer plastics at the start of 2018, which set off a chain of similar import restrictions in other common export markets, such as Vietnam, Thailand and India.

Similar to this is its reference to the labelling of plastic packaging as ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, or ‘bioplastics’, which can cause confusion among consumers, unsure of how to dispose of these items. These items can often not be processed in the conventional plastics recycling stream and must be processed separately – for example, compostable plastic packaging needs to be processed in an industrial composting facility. The government has launched a call for evidence on standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics that it hopes will better inform understanding on this issue.

The paper also mentions the EU ambitions on plastic waste, including the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, as well as the European Green Deal and prospective circular economy action plan, which is expected to include further action on plastic waste.

The UK Government had previously committed to abide by EU commitments of recycling and waste, embodied in the Circular Economy Package, which sets a 60 per cent recycling rate target for 2030, but its latest briefing paper states that ‘the implications of this for the UK may depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and any relevant provisions in any future trade deal’.

Voluntary initiatives to reduce plastic waste were also recognised by the briefing paper, including the UK Plastics Pact, the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan and the UK Circular Plastics Network.

While the government has made addressing the issue of plastic waste a key part of its approach to environmental policy, it has been warned that it must take a coherent and joined-up approach to dealing with single-use plastic packaging to avoid unintended environmental consequences caused by the uptake of alternative materials.

A recent report from think tank Green Alliance cautioned that many companies were switching to alternative materials that may have greater carbon footprints and inadequate collections and treatment infrastructure available to deal with them.

You can read the full briefing paper on the Parliament website.

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