Compacted plastic waste

The UK taking decisive action on plastics this year could set the stage for preventing future pollution

This year is set to be a significant one when it comes to the development of UK policy seeking to reduce plastic pollution.

EIA is already working closely with NGO partners to ensure timely and ambitious objectives and implementation.

In the coming months, a number of key opportunities exist, including the UK Government publishing second-stage consultations on:

  • a deposit-return scheme (DRS) for drinks packaging in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland approved the introduction of a DRS scheme in March 2020). This includes the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for evidence, now live until 5 March;
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging;
  • consistency in recycling collections (ie, to require all English local authorities to collect different waste materials, including plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays and potentially bags and plastic films).

There have been delays as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, but the hope is that these policies will be introduced after a consultation period, adopted and brought into force in 2023.

Our aim is to ensure they are as robust and environmentally sound as possible.


The role of supermarkets in tackling plastic

In addition to campaigning for Government action, EIA works with supermarkets on their own company-level efforts to reduce their plastic footprints. Supermarkets are a significant source of plastic packaging, with the top 10 UK retailers putting a total of 869,853 tonnes on the market in 2019.

In January, in partnership with Greenpeace UK, we published the third Checking Out on Plastics report and also asked supermarkets about their position on different policy areas set to tackle the mounting problem of plastic pollution.

Efforts by the private sector alone will not be sufficient to meet the scale of the crisis, thus we are keen to understand how Government policy can raise ambition, close any gaps that might hinder successful implementation and ensure an equal operating environment.

Our analysis of supermarket responses to questions on mandated plastic reduction and reuse targets, DRS and EPR shows that the supermarket views on binding Government measures are mixed, although overall retailers are broadly supportive of greater regulatory efforts.

A number of key challenges, concerns and opportunities were detailed in the responses, which are analysed in our new briefing Checking Out Plastic Policy.

As we face these critical milestones in 2021, we are using this briefing to talk to policy-makers and companies about how policy can drive the progress we so badly need.


Why is policy so important?

Plastic pollution has been found all over the world, reaching the deepest ocean and remote polar regions. The evidence showing how it impacts on the environment, human health, animal welfare and biodiversity is not only crystal clear but growing day by day.

An ‘all-in’ DRS, plastic reuse targets and the widespread application of EPR are all steps to enable a reduction in plastic pollution. It is crucial that plastic reduction should be a priority in every proposed measure.

Plastic reduction is needed within a short-time frame – the UK’s 25-Year Plan expects to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 – so we encourage supermarkets to see the benefits that legally binding reduction obligations could bring in achieving this goal.

Binding plastic reduction targets not only provide the opportunity to level the playing field, they would also incentivise the spread of innovative solutions which are not yet practiced at such an economy of scale, which would lessen the risks and unknowns about which supermarkets are concerned.

The UK Government knows we are facing a huge challenge. For instance, the introduction of the plastic packaging tax and ban on single use plastic items (such as straws, cotton buds and stirrers) in recent years, the extension of the carrier bag charge in April this year and the £70 million of Government funding for plastic reduction initiatives since 2018 are stepping stones to the sort of solutions we need from policy.

We now need supermarkets and policy-makers to join forces to deliver comprehensive and ambitious plans for these upcoming policy measures in 2021.


Plastic policy explained in brief

Plastic packagingDRS for drink packaging is a scheme whereby people are refunded the cost of the drink containers after returning them to collection facilities, which in turn encourages recycling, reduces litter and waste going to landfill. This scheme is also a form of Extended Producer Responsibility.

Extended Producer Responsibility (or Producer Responsibility) is a regulated system and policy whereby the full net costs of managing a product (for instance, plastic packaging) from production to waste treatment is placed on the businesses that produce and use the product, rather than on taxpayers.

This can be implemented in a manner which will also have an impact on how a product is designed, encouraging recyclability and reuse if EPR design means they will become more financially interesting options for these businesses, which now have the added costs of being responsible for what they make.

There are different definitions of what this system could look like; we see EPR schemes aligning with the ‘polluter-pays principle’, full cost recovery and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development full lifecycle definitions.

For instance, to date businesses producing and using plastic packaging are not paying the full price of the harmful economic, environmental and human health impacts these products cause throughout their entire lifecycle.

A successful EPR scheme is a framework which internalises and builds all these costs in throughout the production, use and discarding process.