Industry welcomes consultation on fiscal measures to tackle ‘scourge’ of single-use plastics
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement that the Treasury would be launching a consultation on how the tax system can be used to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics has received widespread approval from the waste and resources industry following the Spring Statement yesterday (13 March).
Speaking in the House of Commons, Chancellor Philip Hammond launched the call for evidence from stakeholders in the waste and resources industry, along with a £20 million innovation fund to help businesses and universities develop alternatives to single-use plastics.
Announcing the policy, Hammond told assembled MPs: “We must take bold action to become a world leader in tackling the scourge of single-use plastic littering our streets, countryside and coastline.”
The very visible issue of plastic waste has been placed at the forefront of the government’s environment policy, with the headline commitment in the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan being a pledge to eliminate all ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, while Hammond floated the idea of a plastics tax during his Autumn Statement in November 2017.
Hammond was then pressed by Chair of Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh MP in February to move forward with his plans to explore fiscal measures to reduce plastics use before yesterday's announcement. The EAC has been firm in its support for action on plastics, announcing last week that is has asked the National Audit Office (NAO) to review the effectiveness of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system, the UK's plastic packaging producer responsibility regime.
And it appears that industry has responded with almost resounding positivity to the Chancellor’s words on plastics. ESA’s Executive Director Jacob Hayler said: “The Chancellor today has rightly recognised the scourge of single-use plastics which not only blights our natural environment through littering, but in many cases presents challenges for recycling.
“ESA has long called for the government to strengthen producer responsibility to ensure that those who place products and packaging on the market also take greater responsibility for recapturing those materials at the end of their use. Higher taxes or charges for virgin plastics could be part of an overall system which drives the right behaviours across the supply chain by boosting demand for recycled alternatives.
“The call for evidence launched today by the Chancellor in the Spring Statement is therefore highly welcome. It is a strong first step and shows that the government is taking this issue seriously. We look forward to making our recommendations to the Treasury.”
James Court, Head of Policy and External Affairs at the Renewable Energy Association urged the government to use the consultation as a stepping stone to be more ambitious and make food waste a priority alongside plastic waste, saying: “The Chancellor’s commitment to recycling is welcomed, but needs to go beyond single use plastics. The tax system should be used to encourage more sustainable behaviours and establish a true circular economy, one that includes waste reduction, recycling, and energy recovery. An ambition to bring England’s food waste collections to at least the levels seen in Scotland and Wales should be a priority alongside tackling single-use plastics.”
CIWM Chief Executive Dr Colin Church, meanwhile, sought to remind that the UK must also work beyond its borders to tackle plastic pollution, especially in extending assistance to industrialising developing countries where waste management systems are often inadequate for the volumes of waste materials arising: “Plastics have many important functions and are part of modern life – but we have to stop using this versatile and highly durable material in single-use applications that squander a valuable resource, contribute to the pollution of our environment and our oceans, and increase the cost to society of managing our waste.
“There is also a wider imperative to consider measures and incentives to reduce all types of waste, and make better use of recovered materials, to benefit the UK economy and the environment.
“Some three billion people across the globe do not have access to controlled waste disposal services and facilities, and research suggests that mismanaged municipal solid waste in developing countries is the major source of plastics entering the oceans. This means that there is significant scope for UK international aid to be better targeted at helping to address this crisis, as well as a role for UK expertise to help countries to develop approaches that tackle plastic waste in locally sustainable ways.”
Some of the UK’s largest waste management companies – those often tasked with collecting waste plastics – joined the chorus of approval. Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer Veolia UK and Ireland, said: "Plastic is an important material in its own right that has revolutionised society. Whilst looking into new types of packaging for tomorrow we must at the same time remember that a vast proportion of plastic we already use today is recyclable yet we are not capturing it through the recycling process. Over five billion plastic bottles that can easily be recycled are not even re-entering the supply chain.
“Veolia is committed to investing in infrastructure in the UK to improve plastic recycling rates but we all have our part to play. More plastic needs to be collected, and manufacturers need to use recycled content in their products. The good news is we seem to be at a tipping point. With the right policy conditions, manufacturers, consumers and the recycling industry can collectively start a new recycling revolution."
David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, pointed to the precedent set by the UK’s five pence plastic bag levy in changing consumer behaviour and called for a review of the existing packaging recovery note (PRN) system to encourage producers to take more responsibility. He said: “Taxation and policy reforms above all should be used to incentivise change and drive innovation starting with design and manufacture, rather than just focus on consumers when they are sold products wrapped in, or made of single-use plastics.
“It makes environmental sense to ban some non-essential single-use plastics such as plastic straws other than for medical purposes or for example helping the elderly. Piecemeal bans on a few high profile items will capture the public’s imagination but we need to capitalise on that goodwill by having a broader and deeper review of what is sustainable and what is not, and how tax can encourage a more circular economy.”
Plastics play ‘integral’ role
Amid the calls for the consumption of single-use plastics to be reduced, packaging producers – while supportive of the government’s ambition to reduce plastic pollution – have urged politicians not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, reminding of the “integral” role plastics play in modern society. Philip Law, Director General of the British Plastics Federation, said: “Everyone in this debate wants the same thing: to reduce plastic waste so we leave the environment in a better place for generations to come. Any material that can be only used once – whether derived from plastic or anything else – has no place in the future and should be reduced.
“So, as the experts on plastics, we welcome this call for evidence. We support interventions that encourage reusable and recyclable plastic, as well as measures that reduce litter and improve recycling.
“The devil of course will be in the detail. And we must not lose sight of the broader point that there are many positive uses for plastic in our society – from our hospitals to food security. We look forward to working with the government, environmental groups and industry in the months ahead to find a solution that works – and meets the critical challenge of reducing plastic waste.”
Helen Munday, Chief Scientific Officer at the Food and Drink Federation, added: “We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the government’s public consultation process and welcome the launch of the innovation fund to develop the technologies and appropriate approaches to reduce plastic waste.
“It is important that any financial investments be made where they can be most effective in driving change, such as reform of the current UK producer responsibility system for packaging. Additionally, it is vital that these innovations and other actions take full account of the important role of plastics in protecting and preserving food products throughout the food and drink supply chain. Plastics have become an integral part of ensuring food safety and help to prevent and minimise food waste, and those roles must be filled to ensure a safe, affordable, and sustainable food and drink value chain.”
Information about the consultation, which closes at 23:59 on 18 May 2018, can be found on the Treasury website.