Unprecedented public support for plastics tax after Treasury consultation

HM Treasury has revealed that its call for evidence on how the tax system could be used to reduce plastic waste has received overwhelming public support from individuals, businesses and campaign groups alike.

The consultation, entitled ‘Tackling the plastic problem’, ran from 13 March to 18 May 2018, and attracted an unprecedented 162,000 responses, the largest response to any consultation in the Treasury’s history, it was announced on Saturday (18 August).

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond launched the consultation following the Spring Statement in March, after having previously raised the prospect of a plastics tax during his Autumn Statement in November 2017 and being pressed over the progress of the commitment by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee in February this year.Unprecedented public support for tax on plastics following Treasury consultation

With the launch of the consultation being warmly welcomed by industry, it has since gone on to attract unprecedented interest from the wider public, with responses going towards informing the government’s approach ahead of this year’s Budget. Measures that have received particular support in the consultation include using the tax system to:

  • Encourage greater use of recycled plastic in manufacturing rather than new plastic;
  • Discourage the use of difficult-to-recycle plastics, like carbon black plastic;
  • Reduce demand for single-use plastics like coffee cups and takeaway boxes; and
  • Encourage further recycling as opposed to incineration.

The consultation is the latest action on the part of the government to get the UK’s plastics problem under control. The issue of plastic was at the centre of the government’s flagship 25 Year Environment plan, released in January, which included a commitment to eliminate all ‘avoidable’ plastic by 2042.

Other actions taken include a ban on microbeads in wash-off cosmetics products, a £61-million fund to help Commonwealth states to tackle marine plastic pollution and a £20-million fund for plastics research and innovation to develop cutting-edge and circular approaches to plastics manufacturing in the UK. Environment Secretary Michael Gove also confirmed in April that England would be introducing a deposit return scheme for beverage containers by 2020.

Businesses have also shown themselves committed to tackling the country’s plastics waste problem, with more than 42 businesses including Sainsbury’s Tesco and Coca-Cola European Partners signing up to the UK Plastics Pact, committing themselves to eliminating ‘unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

‘The scandal of plastic pollution’

Commenting on the consultation, the Exchequer Secretary, Robert Jenrick, while visiting a plastic pollution clean-up operation on Perranporth Beach in Cornwall, said: “Tackling the scandal of plastic pollution is one of our top priorities and we know the public is right behind us. I’ve been overwhelmed by the public support and the responses we’ve received will be invaluable as we develop our plans for using the tax system to combat this. 

“Our duty to leave the environment in a better state than we found it is absolutely clear and what we’ve set out today is another important step to ensuring a cleaner, greener future for Britain.”

Meanwhile, Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents the UK’s largest waste management companies, said: “We are delighted that the public is behind greater recycling of plastic and as an industry we are committed to working collaboratively with Treasury to make this a reality. A plastic tax will have the biggest impact when it is aimed at production and manufacturing and we are pleased to see that the Treasury is looking at how to encourage greater use of recycled plastic at the start of the waste cycle.”

Hayler took issue, however, with the suggestion that the tax system should be used to disincentivise waste incineration in order to promote recycling, saying: “It is simply wrong to compare recycling as an alternative to Energy from Waste (EfW) and any suggestion that a tax on incineration will improve recycling is misguided. The reality is that EfW is a much-needed alternative to landfill for waste which cannot be recycled. As an industry we don’t want plastic going to our EfW plants and we invest heavily in recycling as much as practically possible, recovering energy from what is left behind. The Treasury should recognise the valuable role of EfW in putting waste that we cannot recycle to further use, and use tax effectively to target those who manufacture non-recyclable plastic.”

A spokesperson for waste management company Veolia added: "We all want to increase the amount the UK recycles and a simple tax incentive could be used to encourage recyclable materials and designs for products and discourage the use of harder-to-recycle options such as black plastic and polystyrene yogurt pots.

"As a collector, sorter, re-processor and seller of recycled plastics Veolia appreciates the dynamics at play and other important measures will also help. These include clearer labelling – a simple green dot for example – so consumers know what can be easily recycled, a revision of the existing Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system to remove the advantage given to export, and a simple deposit return system for plastic and aluminium cans.

"The setting of ambitions targets, such as a minimum percentage of recycled content in packaging, will ensure plastic recycling increases dramatically over the next five years to ensure a more circular and sustainable future".

More than a ‘tokenist tax’

Anti-plastic pollution campaigners eagerly greeted the response to the consultation, with Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, saying: "Surfers Against Sewage is delighted with the huge public response to the Treasury’s recent call for evidence on how the tax system could be used to reduce plastic waste, which many of our supporters responded to.

“This is a clear indication of the public appetite for more fiscal interventions to help reduce plastic pollution littering our environment, from inner-city streets and countryside to our oceans."

Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, also welcomed the response to the call for evidence, but warned that any action needed to be far-reaching and address the entire value chain. She said: "The public have spoken and we are asking our elected government to show real leadership now. That means much more than a tokenist tax on unrecyclable plastic or a bottle deposit scheme. After a year of noise throughout the UK we need proper action rather than a sticking plaster approach.

"The facts are now out there – only nine per cent of our plastic is recycled in the UK. The only answer is to use less of this indestructible material in the first place and turn off the plastic tap. It must start with a dramatic reduction in the use of plastic to package our food and drink. We must incentivise those brands that are going plastic free.

"Those who continue to use plastic must be taxed heavily and that revenue ring fenced to build a waste management infrastructure that is relevant for today, not our plastic yesterday. Recycling – or what is actually always downcycling – plastic is not the answer.

"Eventually all plastic ends up in our environment. We have a rare moment in time where everyone is in agreement, we need to turn off the plastic tap. Do not let this moment go to waste with compromised measures."

You can read ‘Tackling the plastic problem: Summary of responses to the call for evidence’ on the HM Treasury website.

Related Articles