UK to consider tax on single-use plastics to tackle marine plastic pollution

Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to launch a call for evidence over introduction of a tax on single-use plastics to tackle plastic pollution in his Budget statement on Wednesday (22 November).

A potential tax or charge would target the use of single-use plastics in takeaway cartons and packaging in a bid to combat the blight of plastic pollution impacting on the environment.

With over eight million tonnes of plastic entering the marine environment every year, supporters of a tax hope that it would have the same effect on the environment as the 5p plastic bag levy introduced in England in October 2015, which saw the amount of plastic bags issued by the seven main retailers (Asda, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Co-operative group, Waitrose and Morrisons) fall by 61 per cent in the six months after its introduction.

UK to consider tax on single-use plastics to tackle marine plastic pollution

Plastic pollution has become an ubiquitous feature of the natural environment, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimating that there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the oceans by 2050. Plastic has even been found in creatures residing in the deepest parts of the ocean, some seven to ten kilometres below the surface.

The issue has been brought into sharp relief by David Attenborough’s latest offering, Blue Planet II, in which incredible footage of life in the oceans is juxtaposed against alarming images of plastic pervading the marine environment, with one episode showing an albatross attempt to feed plastic to its young and a baby pilot whale apparently dead from consuming plastic-contaminated milk from its mother.

The call for evidence for the tax is set to begin in the new year and will consult with stakeholders to decide whether a tax would be appropriate and, if implemented, how much money such a tax would raise and what the tax revenues would be used for.

The move follows separate decisions taken by Environment Secretary Michael Gove at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to ban the use of microbeads in wash-off cosmetics products in from January 2018 and to hold a consultation on the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers in a bid to reduce plastic pollution.

‘A welcome move’

News of the proposed call for evidence drew a largely positive reaction from environment campaigners, who welcomed the move while warning there is still much work to be done, and a mixed reaction from the resources industry.

Tisha Brown, an oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told the national media that: “Ocean plastic pollution is a global emergency, it is everywhere from the Arctic Ocean at top of the world to the Marianas trench at the bottom of the Pacific. It’s in whales, turtles and 90 per cent of seabirds, and it’s been found in our salt, our tap water and even our beer.

“The Treasury’s announcement is only a statement of intent, but it recognises the significance of the problem and the urgent need for a solution. There is a long way to go, but hopefully this is the beginning of the end for single-use plastic.”

Jeff Knott, Head of Nature Policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), added: “Sadly our marine life is in trouble. Through the mismanagement of our waters with fishing, pollution and littering we are seeing declines in many important marine species as well as those that depend on them. A tax on single-use plastics is a welcome move, but we must also recognise more needs to be done to tackle the often less visible threats.”

Meanwhile, the resources industry was split on the matter of introducing a tax to reduce single-use plastic consumption. David Palmer-Jones of SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, said: "This is a vital step towards achieving a more resource-efficient society and encouraging producers to take more responsibility. 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."

In response the British Plastics Federation issued the following statement: “The British Plastics Federation feels it is important that all facts are considered during the call for evidence and any measures are proportionate. For example, it should be noted that only two per cent of ocean litter comes from the UK, Europe and the USA combined and the plastics industry has invested in hundreds of initiatives to stop plastic leaking into the environment. It should also be taken into account that plastics offer unique, functional benefits and reduce food waste, CO2 emissions and protect products in ways no other material can.

“Any interventions from government should involve detailed consultation with all industry stakeholders associated with the supply of food and drink so that they are effective, evidence-based, maximise recycling and minimise the amount of this valuable and recyclable material being lost to the environment, where it can cause harm. At this point in time, we do not feel that taxation is the best course of action but look forward to continuing constructive dialogue with government.”

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