The Government's plan to tackle plastic is welcome – but it should be done in the right way

A combination of taxes and surcharges at various points in the production cycle, and a range of subsidies available for recycling, would provide the best possible framework for change

Thursday 11 January 2018 17:41
There is no harm, as such, in the PM’s slightly dotty idea of ‘plastic free’ aisles in supermarkets
There is no harm, as such, in the PM’s slightly dotty idea of ‘plastic free’ aisles in supermarkets

There’s usually a weasel word or two in most of this Government’s pledges, and the latest has turned up, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, naturally, in the Prime Minister’s grandiloquent “25 year plan” to clean up the environment and eradicate all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042.

Never mind that only the most baby-faced of her Cabinet will still be around to answer for their record in Parliament, that qualifying “avoidable” leaves loopholes large enough to drive a bin lorry through. What is “avoidable”? Does it mean that if firms decide to use plastic packaging which cannot be recycled, or cannot be recycled economically, then those plastics aren’t counted, because that plastic waste is “unavoidable”? What if plastics are the only method to keep food fresh, say, and reduce food waste? An issue highlighted in our charity appeal for the Felix Project. Or if plastics are essential to protect delicate components or products? Are those plastics “unavoidable” in use? Or should we be considering a deliberately lower growth, or at least lower consumption society as the Green Party suggests?

Still, any renewal of the green agenda by the Conservative Government, even one cynically designed to try to win back young voters lost to Jeremy Corbyn’s painfully sincere veganist red-green proposition, has to be welcomed. The once husky-hugging David Cameron, after all, once burned though his entire stock of environmental political capital by reportedly dismissing it as “green crap”, when he felt he had more pressing financial and industrial problems to solve. It was a revealing comment, betraying the skin-deep commitment of the “modernising” prime minister to such issues.

By the same token, Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for saving the planet wasn’t conspicuous before he happened to be allowed back into the Cabinet in the comparatively lowly department for environment, food and rural affairs. His predecessor, Andrea Leadsom, had apparently been instructed by No 10 to make her green policy “boring” – which she duly did.

Michael Gove touts new Education minister Damien Hinds as potential future PM

Her successor has his own reasons for hogging the headlines and turning himself into a sort of threshing machine, with vote-winning ideas going in at one end and policies and speeches popping out at the other. He’s energetic, if nothing else, though the chances of May and Gove ever “out-greening” Corbyn or Caroline Lucas are slim. Gove will need more than a pastel-shaded reusable coffee beaker to manage that.

Ministers do, though, show some vague understanding that they “get it” and the way to change behaviour is through financial incentives and penalties, what was once fashionably termed “nudge” economics. A fund for green investment in recycling will do much good. They are right to consider a tax or levy (to be sent to charity) on the disposable cups, bottles, plates and cutlery that we use and throw away without a second thought as to where they will end up. They are also right to do so with some caution, because, like all such policies the law of unintended consequences can intervene.

The Government, like consumers, would not, for example, want to push small cafes out of business by imposing a charge on disposable cups that was disproportionately high. If the problem is that those cups cannot be easily recycled because of their awkward combination of paper and plastic, then the answer ought to be to tax the use of such materials and encourage a more easily recyclable product instead. In any case we use far too many of these plasticised coffee cups for the good of the planet or the nation.

One other thing that the Government does need to clear up is the confusion in consumers’ minds about the desirability of diesel cars. Mr Gove has said that they damage air quality, yet the newest designs, the industry argue, do no such thing and emit less CO2 than petrol units. Before both types of internal combustion engine are banned for new sales in 2040 – another long-distant target – the Treasury in particular needs to tell car buyers what its intentions for fuel duty and vehicle tax are so that they and the car companies can plan for a greener medium-term future over the next 22 years or so.

Why not a five or 10-year plan for motor vehicles, covering taxes, duty, technological change, parking and congestion charging, more power points for electric vehicles and other issues for buyers of cars, vans, lorries, buses and taxis?

There is no harm, as such, in Theresa May’s slightly dotty idea of “plastic free” aisles in supermarkets – in which the produce is only “plastic free” until it reaches the checkout and is placed in a 5p plastic bag. Maybe she and Philip came up with the idea when they were touring their local Waitrose. The Mays’ installation of owl and bat boxes in their garden is an equally laudable innovation. We will see whether the Cabinet follow suit, and if any of them decide to add Cameron-style windmills on their roof.

There is much more danger in the heavy hint that the overseas aid budget will be raided to pay for oceanic clean-up schemes or other green programmes. Urgent as the environment is as a cause, there are more pressing humanitarian calls on the resources.

A combination of taxes and surcharges at various points in the production cycle, and a range of subsidies available for recycling, would provide the best possible framework for a change in consumer and in producer behaviour. In the past, glass bottles carried a reclaimable deposit, which cut down on them being thrown away.

However, for any green policy to have much effect it would need to be implemented at an international level, say through the rules governing the European single market, the largest in the world, which Britain can influence as a member state of the EU – for the time being at any rate. Watching Michael Gove project his environmental ambitions from the European stage would be an entertaining exercise and perhaps an educative one for him too.

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