Plastic waste is the environmental issue of the moment.
Long acknowledged by ocean scientists, Blue Planet II brought the threat of marine plastic pollution into the nation’s living rooms. Viewers saw the horrific impact that long-lived plastics could have on underwater environments when creatures accidentally consume or become trapped in them.
Since then, the Government has made plastic waste a centrepiece of its November budget, as well as its recently announced 25 year plan for the environment. In recent months we have also seen the UK making moves to tackle plastic bottles, disposable coffee cups and microbeads in cosmetics.
Meanwhile, as China bans imports of “foreign garbage”, the UK is under more pressure than ever to find new ways to deal with the mountains of plastic waste the country produces every year.
Now, the EU has thrown its hat into the ring with the announcement of a “European strategy for plastics in a circular economy”. Some environmentalists have already commended the strategy for being more substantial than UK proposals, indicating that while the UK Government has gone big on anti-plastic rhetoric, it has not supported this with ample legislation.
“Europe has thrown down the low-plastic gauntlet for Mr Gove to show if a post-Brexit UK really will be an environmental leader,” said Julian Kirby, plastic and waste campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
Chancellor Philip Hammond said he wanted to make the UK “a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic,” and a Defra spokesperson has stated this mission is "a critical part of our Green Brexit plans".
But as Brexit looms, how do British proposals weigh up against those of our European neighbours?
Legislation to make businesses deal with plastics
A key sticking point for many on the announcement of the Government’s 25 year environment plan was the lack of firm legislation emerging from it. For a document heralded by its authors as a way to leave the environment “in a better state than we found it”, some experts said it was not concrete enough to make a real, long-term difference.
“We will encourage manufacturers to take responsibility for the impact of their products, and rationalise the number of different types of plastic they use,” said Theresa May on the launch of the plan.
The key word here may have been “encourage”.
“The European Union is always more comfortable putting in place rules and regulations that require action from businesses,” Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent. “The UK is much more inclined to ask for voluntary measures."
“This is why we have been a laggard on the environment for so many years, and why the European Union has improved our performance,” said Mr Childs.
Making recycling easier and more widespread
The key take-home message from the EU’s new plastic strategy was its goal to improve recycling rates in Europe. Currently only 30 per cent of the 25 million tonnes of plastic waste produced across the continent is recycled annually.
This is what prompted EU policy makers to call for “a more circular economy” in which recycling and reuse are encouraged, and they have put their money where their mouth is by pledging €100m (£89m) to finance the development of “smarter and more recyclable plastics materials”.
“The EU’s announcement was more ambitious in terms of the timeline they are looking at,” Dr Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine at WWF told The Independent.
The EU intends to make all plastic packaging on the European market recyclable by 2030, while the UK is aiming to achieve “zero avoidable plastic waste” – but not until 2042.
As for actual targets for the proportion of waste that is recycled (and not just recyclable), in 2015 the European Commission proposed that by 2025 at least 55 per cent of all plastic packaging should be recycled. This has not changed with the new strategy, though environmentalists have indicated they would like a more ambitious target.
As a current member of the single market, the UK has the same recycling goal, and the Government has indicated this will not change following Brexit.
Plastic bags, microbeads and single-use plastics
EU policy makers have praised the UK for its progressive approach on plastics, and there have certainly been a handful of measures that have staked the nation’s claim as a “world leader” in tackling plastic, just as the Chancellor wanted.
The ban on microbeads in cosmetic products came into force at the beginning of January in the UK.
It is estimated that up to 300,000 tonnes of microplastics – including microbeads – are released into the environment every year in the EU. While the EU’s new strategy said it would “take measures to restrict the use of microplastics in products,” the form such measures will take remains to be seen.
“The microbead ban is brilliant, and the UK Government has been ahead of the game in that regard,” said Dr Dodds.
“Equally the plastic bag tax has been successful, and has greatly reduced consumption of plastic bags.”
The 5p charge on plastic bags has been applauded for apparently reducing use by 85 per cent. However, there has been some controversy as the UK Government appeared to take credit for the policy’s success, despite claims it originated from EU regulations.
“I see the confusion is a little bit widespread in Britain at the moment. Michael Gove for example has forgotten that the ban on plastic bags is an EU regulation,” Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt told European Parliament recently.
In response, a Defra spokesperson said: "It is not true to claim that our plastic bag charge is a result of EU regulation. We set out our plans before the EU and we have gone further than EU regulations require".
While British and European politicians can quibble about who came up with what policy, the truth is that like the UK’s strategy, the EU’s new goals still require plenty of fleshing out.
Though their recycling targets are more ambitious, many of the actual ways of dealing with plastic are left ambiguous in the new strategy, at least for the time being.
With methods for reducing single-use plastic consumption and dealing with abandoned fishing gear due from the EU later this year, it remains to be seen how helpful they will be for tackling what is, after all, an issue that transcends borders.
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