Single-use plastic tax must be part of wider industrial strategy, says industry

The waste and resources industry has issued a cautiously positive response to the Autumn Budget today (22 November), which included a call for evidence on a single-use plastics tax and extra funding for the Environment Agency (EA) to tackle waste crime, although measures on single-use plastics must form part of a wider industrial strategy.

Due to intense focus on burning issues such as the NHS and housing, there was not a huge amount of expectation from the waste and resources industry as Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered his Autumn Budget Statement to the House of Commons.

Single-use plastic tax must be part of wider industrial strategy, says industryHowever, there were morsels of interest for the sector, with the expected call for evidence on the effects of a tax or charge in reducing single-use plastics use to tackle the ocean plastics crisis, with eight million tonnes of plastic entering the marine environment every year, and a commitment to give the EA an additional £30 million over four years to aid its crackdown on waste crime providing some cheer for the industry.

Despite these encouraging developments, the immediate response to the Budget from the waste and resources industry has been mixed: cautious optimism tempered by calls to ensure that any policy changes on single-use plastics are integrated into a wider, coherent, resource-efficient strategy for the future of British industry.

In response to the Budget, the ESA's Executive Director Jacob Hayler spoke positively of Hammond’s commitment, saying: “The Chancellor has listened to the industry’s calls to toughen the fight against waste crime, and the extra £30 million funding provided to the Environment Agency to help stamp out illegal activity in the sector is highly welcome. This will strengthen the industry’s efforts to boost recycling and resource productivity.

“We are also pleased that the government will consult on how to use tax measures and charges to reduce single-use plastics waste. By making producers more responsible for the end of life of their plastic products, eco-design will be properly rewarded and the pressure on local authorities’ budgets will be relieved.”

Colin Church, CEO of CIWM, added: “CIWM has worked closely with other key stakeholders in the sector to ensure that tackling waste crime remains a priority for government and that regulators are adequately resourced to tackle this rising crime of criminal behaviour that undermines the legitimate industry and blights the environment. By its own recent admission, the Environment Agency is struggling to keep up with the number of new illegal waste sites that are springing up and this additional funding is much needed.

“There is still a long way to go, but the Chancellor’s words sends a clear signal to businesses and consumers that plastic waste is under the spotlight. Discarded plastic items in particular have become a ubiquitous and unwelcome symbol of the damage that careless consumerism has on the environment. With the tide of public opinion turning because of issues such as marine plastic pollution, it is encouraging to see that the government is willing to act. We all want convenience but we must do more to protect the environment from the negative impact it can have as a result of irresponsible design, poor management at the point of disposal, and littering.

“Taxes, deposit return schemes and other recycling incentives must be part of a wider review of how the UK applies the ‘polluter pays’ principle and what responsibilities should be placed on producers for the environmental impact of their products, right from the design stage, through the use phase, to the opportunities for second and third lives through re-use, remanufacturing and recycling. The business case for better resource efficiency and productivity becomes more compelling every day – big brands do not make decisions lightly but we see the likes of Unilever setting a zero waste to landfill target across its global factory network and Coca-Cola’s European operations committing to collect 100 per cent of packaging to ensure no litter ends up on the street or in the ocean. Others must now follow suit and take consumers with them.”

Plans for a single-use plastic tax follow public outcry over the impact of plastics on the environment, particularly in the oceans
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Others were less effusive in their praise for the Budget announcements, with the Resource Association’s official Twitter account tweeting: ‘Consultation on single-use plastic is welcomed, but we hope this investigation integrates with Defra review of Resources & Waste Strategy - piecemeal political approaches to issues like DRS & packaging taxes aren’t helpful. Coherent strategy needed.’

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, added: “The government has finally woken up to the tide of plastic choking our countryside, rivers and marine life. My Committee’s inquiry into disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles has heard that 15 million bottles are landfilled, littered or incinerated every day, and that almost none of the seven million takeaway coffee cups we use are recycled. The Chancellor’s promise to start a consultation on single-use plastics charges next year is welcome, but does nothing to tackle the rising tide of plastic in our oceans now.”

Meanwhile, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, stated that any fiscal policy designed to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics must be part of a wider industrial strategy, saying: “We welcome any government initiative which seeks to drive down the use of single-use plastics in favour of more sustainable, recyclable, forms of packaging and products. This is a vital step towards achieving  a more resource-efficient society and encouraging producers to take more responsibility.  

“Policy and taxation changes are welcome if they can help reduce the use of virgin materials in favour of more sustainable, recyclable products. Taxation changes to help the environment need to be part of a wider policy that marries the protection of our precious natural resources with a modern, sustainable, industrial strategy.

“An extended producer responsibility regime should address all forms of resource usage, materials and packaging production, and their collection, reuse and recycling across the supply chain.”

Are taxes the best approach?

Chris Sherrington, Head of Environmental Policy and Economics at Eunomia Research & Consulting, warns that, while a tax can be an effective way of reducing single-use plastics consumption, it depends on the item: “For some items, taxes aren’t the best approach, and other economic instruments, or regulatory measures, should instead be used. For example, for single-use beverage containers, a deposit-return scheme would be the best way to significantly reduce littering, and increase recycling of bottles (and indeed cans). For plastic straws and stirrers, a deposit return scheme wouldn’t work, but rather than put a tax in place, it might be simpler to just ban them.

“While the waste prevention effects of a tax or a charge would be the same, in principle, and certainly from the Treasury’s perspective, a tax would be preferable. A tax would avoid the risks - that could occur with a charge - that funds disbursed by retailers displace CSR spending, and lead to undue influence over recipients, who themselves might become overly dependent upon the proceeds of the charge, potentially limiting their support for high ambition in respect of waste and litter prevention.”

Clarity on single-use plastics needed

Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer of Veolia UK and Ireland, raised the pertinent point that clarity on what constitutes single-use plastics is also required in order for any fiscal measure to be applied appropriately and proportionately, adding: “The real value will be realised if the tax revenue is spent on finding new solutions to tackle these ‘single-use’ products. As a nation, we need to recognise the importance of recycling plastic to help reduce the amount of waste going to landfill or ending up in our oceans. After all, we fail to recycle almost half of the plastics bottles we use.

“Therefore, we believe there needs to be a clear distinction between what is and isn’t ‘single-use’ plastic, to help people make informed decisions. Clear labelling is key. For example, plastic bottles are not ‘single-use’ if they’re recycled, whereas straws, takeaway food trays and plastic cutlery often cannot be used again.

“I’m a firm believer the solution to making all plastics easily recyclable lies in collaboration. At Veolia we want to ensure sustainability throughout the entire packaging supply chain by working with designers, manufacturers and processors to find sustainable solutions, while raising awareness with consumers.”

British Plastics Federation condemns single-use plastics tax as ‘populist’

However, not all have taken succour from the potential tax on single-use plastics, with the British Plastics Federation (BPF) issuing a statement criticising the announcement, saying investment in on-the-go recycling would have a more positive impact on the drive to reduce plastic pollution: “The presence of plastics in the ocean is an issue that is rightly concerning the public. However, the BPF urges the government to look at options that address the root cause of this global problem, rather than embracing seemingly quick-win, populist strategies.

“A tax that ultimately increases costs for the consumer does not provide a viable solution to today’s issues — the UK accounts for only 0.2 per cent of marine litter and the plastic bag charge has not reduced general littering. Instead, the UK needs a strategy to increase on-the-go recycling, a system enabling clear national communications and the enforcement of fines to make it universally understood that littering is unacceptable and irresponsible.

“The BPF looks forward to working with government to develop rounded solutions that will increase recycling, overall resource efficiency and reduce all litter.”

More detail about the Autumn Budget can be found in Resource’s news story.

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