Was the Budget plastic fantastic?

5 Nov 18

Plastic pollution is a real problem and one the public cares passionately about. The Budget offered a partial solution, says Peter Maddox, charity director at WRAP.

Plastic recycling

 

Bin collections are one of the most visible and widely used of all council services. Given the huge public interest in tackling plastic waste, prompted by Sir David Attenborough’s TV programme ‘Blue Planet II’ last year, many organisations in the public and private sectors are coming under pressure to raise their game on recycling and waste management. But at a time of huge pressure on local authority finances, how are councils to square this circle? You may have heard that Swindon Borough Council is planning to tell residents to stop recycling mixed plastics, so items such as yoghurt pots and plastics trays will be put in with the usual black bin waste. Is there a different way? The Budget may offer a partial solution.

While nobody expected the chancellor Phillip Hammond to pull many rabbits out of his hat at last week’s Budget, he did announce an intriguing new tax on the manufacture or import of single-use plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled content. This will help tackle the scourge of plastics that finds their way into our oceans and rivers. 

If this goes ahead following consultation, business will have until April 2022 to adapt their designs and processes before the introduction of the tax. Alongside planned reforms to the Producer Responsibility regime for packaging, this will encourage businesses to ensure that far more packaging is recyclable and uses more recycled content. 

Plans will be set out later this year to reform this regime to make businesses who make and use packaging, including plastic, more responsible for the clean-up and recycling cost of that packaging. It will also encourage them to design and use plastic packaging that is easier to recycle, and discourage them from using plastics that are difficult to recycle, such as black plastic used in food trays. This is important to local authorities and to their residents, who currently pay something like 90% of the costs of collecting and recycling household packaging waste. 

We know that local residents really care about plastic pollution. The Treasury's consultation Tackling the Plastic Problem received an unprecedented 162,000 responses, demonstrating the strong public interest in tackling this issue. However, nobody likes to think of their council tax being spent disposing of items that needn’t have existed in the first place. In a bid to make recycling more economically efficient, councils have called on companies to contribute more towards recycling costs and invest in efforts to cut packaging. 

We know there is willingness from business to change their practices, evidenced by so many businesses signing up to the UK Plastics Pact led by WRAP, which has ambitious targets to transform the plastic system in the UK. This includes a commitment to eliminate all problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025. To do this, we need to shift to a culture which considers reusability and recyclability much more in how we design, use and dispose of plastic. 

We have always been clear that government policy is integral in underpinning change and are looking forward to seeing how Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy, in close alignment with the fiscal measures proposed in the Budget, will help to deliver the systemic change we need to ensure plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment. Done right, these changes will make it easier and cheaper for councils to deal with plastic waste, while bringing in new sources of revenue to help fund the better recycling services that residents want.

Tackling plastic pollution is a complex issue that requires consumers, central government, businesses and local authorities to each play their part. Reducing the amount of plastic we don’t need in the first place, and recycling as much as we can of the plastic we can’t do without, will help solve this problem while keeping costs for local authorities and their residents down. With councils’ budgets squeezed as much as they are, there is no room for waste on waste.

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