‘Our environment, our responsibility’: Mary Creagh calls for responsibility reform and attitude shift to waste
Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee has called for reform of the UK’s packaging responsibility system to incentivise sustainable design and stop the pushing of waste to export.
The atmosphere was optimistic but determined at the 2018 Kit Strange Memorial Lecture, hosted by Barry Sheerman MP, with many attendees discussing the need to capitalise on a remarkable rise in public and media attention for the waste and resources world.
Creagh, delivering the lecture this year after winning last year’s Hot 100, Resource’s list of innovators and change-makers in the waste and resources sector (won this year by WasteAid UK CEO Mike Webster), used her address to call for strong government leadership on the issues that have dominated discourse in the past year - packaging waste, ocean plastics, China’s import ban and the risk posed to environmental protections by Brexit.
Reiterating her committee’s calls for a plastic bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) in England, a 25 pence levy on single-use coffee cups and a minimum of 50 per cent recycled content in new plastic bottles, Creagh stressed the importance of recognising the value in waste, not only improving recycling but stimulating UK end markets for collected materials, to build a “greater commercial understanding of packaging and other materials as something to look after, rather than something to throw away - because there is no such place as ‘away’.”
Creagh also spoke on the EAC’s repeated calls for reform of the UK producer responsibility system, which sets out how much producers pay towards the collection and recycling of their products. The committee has suggested a new system of fees which would encourage design for recyclability and raise charges for the use of non-recyclable or hard to recycle materials, ultimately moving the UK “towards a resource efficient economy in which every part of the supply chain is fully invested in retaining the value of materials.”
Further criticism came for the system of packaging export recovery notes (PERNs), with Creagh commenting that the current set-up incentivises the export of waste at the expense of domestic infrastructure. China’s ban on a range of waste imports, including mixed papers and post-consumer plastics, has brought this issue to the fore: “The UK has been paying other countries to create jobs, investment and energy, when we should have been doing that ourselves,” Creagh said. “The China ban is a wake-up call and a challenge for us to go further and do better than we have in the past.” In January, the EAC launched an inquiry into the environmental impact of the ban and whether the government has made adequate preparations for the UK waste industry.
Brexit could be a ‘bonfire of regulations’
On all points, the message was clear: the government needs to make clear decisions on legislation to protect our environment - perhaps most urgently regarding Brexit. Creagh spoke on the risk of EU environmental protections becoming “zombie legislation” once the UK has left the Union, mentioning uncertainty over whether the UK will accept the terms of the EU Circular Economy Package.
The lack of a solid plan for any kind of independent body to monitor and enforce environmental standards post-Brexit was also criticised, with Creagh questioning why there has not yet been a consultation on the subject despite Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement of intent in November last year. Similarly, there has not yet been a call for evidence on a single-use plastic tax, something mentioned in the 2017 Autumn Budget.
Continued pressure on the government from the EAC has come in the form of a letter, published today (7 January), to David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office, in which Creagh questions the government’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and urges the ‘explicit inclusion of these goals in each relevant department’s Single Departmental Plan’; currently only two plans mention the SDGs.
‘Our environment, our responsibility’
As well as a demand for stronger government leadership, Creagh spoke on the need for behaviour change throughout society, drawing particular attention to the problem of littering with a story about ‘tossers’ throwing litter out of cars: “I see a lot of this on my bike...there was a woman sat in a traffic jam who posted a cigarette packet out of her window, so I picked it up, and posted it back through.”
Creagh encouraged the audience to take up the newest trend out of Scandinavia, ‘plogging’, the act of picking up litter while out on a run. “Something that should be normal, picking up waste as you go, is somehow seen as extraordinary, as someone else’s problem… This is our environment, and it’s not other people’s responsibility to clear up our mess, it’s our responsibility.”
She concluded with a rallying statement to the audience: “Preventing waste from entering our environment is the big issue of the day… Some of you may have felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness for many years, but finally the time is right and people are ready to listen to this.
“People are happier if their public spaces, their environment, is clean and litter free; our economy works more efficiently if we make smart use of resources; and our marine life - and ultimately our own lives - are protected if we keep plastic out of the sea.
“It’s a long road, but we travel it together, picking up the waste from the tossers as we go.”