Today, the government’s much-delayed 25-year plan for nature was announced. Since we had to wait almost two years for it, we’d be forgiven for wanting to see some tough and timely measures to address the huge environmental challenges we face - starting with plastic waste.
Ministers were supposed to unveil what they plan to do to stop the millions of tonnes of plastic going into the oceans every year. Yet there is very little either in Theresa May’s speech or in the government plan to persuade people that their policies will lead to real change anytime soon.
Yes, the government has put forward some good measures, like extending the 5p plastic bag charge to include small retailers. Since its introduction in 2015, it has resulted in an 85% drop in the use of plastic bags. If we get small shops involved, surely this figure will increase. It’s also gotten people in the habit of bringing their own reusable bags when they shop, which is a great way to challenge our throwaway culture.
A call for plastic-free aisles is also welcome as it will help reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic packaging in our food shopping. Many people who try to reduce their plastic usage have found food shopping to be quite challenging. This new call puts supermarkets in the frame and will start a very necessary conversation about food packaging.
May also reiterated the Treasury department’s previous call for evidence into the introduction of a tax on single-use plastic items. This can help incentivise consumers to reduce the amount of plastic that they use.
This is all well and good, but given the level of public support for strong action, this feels mostly like a missed opportunity.
For a start, consumers can’t shoulder all of the blame. Manufacturers have to be held responsible for the end-life of their packaging, so they can start in earnest to find alternatives to plastic.
It was also disappointing to see a deadline of 2042 to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. By that time, we would have added, at the current rate, almost another 300million tonnes of plastic to our oceans. Just today, Scotland announced that they plan to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds - an entirely avoidable plastic. Westminster should be at the very least equally ambitious. Earlier this week, a ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products came into force, to the praise of the wider public. We hope that we don’t have to wait another 25 years for similar legislation on other plastic items.
But the most visible gap in the plan was the absence of a deposit return scheme. This is a tried-and-tested initiative where customers pay a little bit extra when they purchase a plastic bottle but have the money refunded when they return the bottle for recycling. These schemes have been implemented in many places around the world where they have been credited for increasing collection rates of plastic bottles to up to 90%.
This is important as plastic bottles are one the of most commonly found items on the ocean’s surface and during beach cleans. The Scottish government has already signalled that they want to introduce a deposit return scheme and last month the Environment Audit Committee recommended a UK-wide one. Yet there was no mention of a bottle scheme in today’s speech despite strong support from the public and from supermarkets including Iceland, the Co-Op and now Tesco.
Overall none of these measures match the scale of the plastic crisis we face. With plastic now being found in everything from our seafood, to our beer, tap water and sea salt, we need urgent action in the here and now. It’s good that the government wants to make tackling plastic waste a priority. But what we need is a 25-month plan to stop plastic choking our oceans - not 25 years.