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Environment

Britain Has Unveiled Its New Plastics Plan: 3 Key Things to Know

Why Global Citizens Should Care
There are already 51 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans — more than 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy, according to Surfers Against Sewage. But since less than a fifth of global plastic is actually recycled, plans to fight it should be radical. Join us by taking action here to take a stand against plastic. 

After David Attenborough’s immensely popular Blue Planet II inspired almost everyone who watched it to change their lifestyle, it’s become obvious how badly people want to see action on plastics.

Now, fresh plans to tackle plastic pollution have been unveiled by the British government — and it contained some pretty bold claims.

Take Action: Take the Pledge to #UnplasticthePlanet

UK Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted on Monday that the plans would “overhaul the waste system.” Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Michael Gove added that Britain is “leading the way to move away from being a ‘throw-away’ society and drive up domestic recycling.”

We already know that plastic straws and cotton buds could be banned — except when needed for medical reasons — as early as this October. It builds on the ban on microbeads — tiny bits of plastic often found in hygiene products like shower gel — rolled out in January 2018.

The fresh proposals, including more consistent recycling labelling, will make up part of the Environment Bill: a piece of legislation that will come to parliament as early as April — potentially battling it out with Game of Thrones, Killing Eve, and Avengers: Endgame for media airtime (eek!).

But will the proposed changes succeed in its towering remit to seriously reduce plastic pollution — or can it do better? 

Here’s the key bits you should know.

1. Bottle deposit return scheme

Let’s not mess about here: this is a really, really great idea.

Sometimes accomplished with “reverse vending machines,” you get charged a little extra for every plastic bottle you buy. When you’re done, you bring it bring back, and you’re refunded the difference. 

And it works! In Germany, a 22p charge resulted in a 97% reduction in plastic bottle use — with many incentivised to recycle to save money — and in the UK it could reportedly stop us using 700,000 bottles every single day.

However, the current proposal shows that the government is considering limiting such proposals to small bottles only. CNN reports that the British Retail Consortium insist that the scheme should only apply to bottles consumed outside the home. But Greenpeace argue that “millions” of larger bottles would then be lost to nature or landfill.

“These proposals are welcome steps forward, but bigger strides are needed if we are truly going to deal with the consequences of our throwaway society,” Julian Kirby, the plastics lead at Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian.

Right now, only half of the 13 million plastic bottles sold in the UK are recycled. The rest get incinerated or thrown away, often ending up on our streets or in the oceans.

2. Plastic packaging tax

It’s currently cheaper for businesses to make things with new plastic rather than recycled plastic. That means more new plastic is produced — and therefore more is wasted.

So to incentivise environmentalism, the government wants to slap a tax on any plastic made up of less than 30% recycled materials from April 2022. In addition, producers will cover the full cost of dealing with non-recyclable packaging waste — rather than the 10% they pay now — to further motivate businesses to use recyclable products.

Although the tax rate has not yet been set, the Treasury stated that the minimum recyclable taxable materials could rise in the future. It comes after a public consultation in March last year on using the tax system to tackle plastic that received a huge 162,000 responses — the largest response to a call for evidence in the Treasury’s history.

“Through our plans we will introduce a world-leading tax to boost recycled content in plastic packaging, make producers foot the bill for handling their packaging waste, and end the confusion over household recycling,” said Gove. “We are committed to cementing our place as a world leader in resource efficiency, so we can be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

3. More money for weekly food waste pickup

Any money raised from that plastics tax could be used to fund an increase in food bin collections.

The Guardian reports that after deep cuts to local budgets, quite a few councils began to reduce services — including leaving food bins overflowing, attracting insects and rats. It resulted in at least 1.8 million complaints. 

But now Gove wants to ensure that collections are equally regular all over the country.

But for all the reusable coffee cups reportedly carried with decreasing regularity from members of the cabinet, the UK still does not know what to do with its own recycling. Britain can recycle just 9% of the 3.3 million tonnes of plastic it uses every year, according to environmental charity the Green Alliance. Instead, it sends most of it abroad — and that’s got some problems.

Until July 2017, two-thirds of British plastic was exported to the world’s biggest importer of it: China. But then China refused to take it, rejecting “yang laji” or “foreign garbage”. So where did it all go? The BBC reports that Poland, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia are now “gobbling up the slack”; and says that we seem to be burning way more of it, too.

Campaigners argue that we need fresh infrastructure in our own country to effectively collect, reuse, and recycle plastic waste. The Green Alliance suggested creating a “circular economy” — essentially meaning that everything we use repeatedly goes back to the start of the production chain. It’s a term the government has adopted in its plans — and yet it insists on continuing to measure success by rates of recycling collected, rather than the recycling actually recycled.

Basically, we need to maximise the opportunity right in front of us: because while that image of an albatross feeding plastic to its chicks in Blue Planet II continues to haunt our collective mind, we must ensure that this moment for change lives up to its potential.

Get your voice heard by contributing your ideas to the numerous public consultations, open for 12 weeks: on recycling standards; the plastic tax; the bottle deposit return scheme; and producer responsibility.