Plastic un-fantastic

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So far in the UK, 2018 has been dominated by the topic of plastic.

In December 2017, China announced that it would cease importing most types of plastic waste for recycling, a move that has unnerved both the government and businesses in the UK. Previously, plastic was an “out of sight, out of mind” problem for the UK. But now with the Chinese ban in imports, the UK will have to address its plastic waste problem urgently as it currently does not have the means to recycle or deal with the amount of plastic waste it generates every year. According to Greenpeace, the UK has sent over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012, amounting to 2/3 of the UK’s total export of plastic waste.

In response to the ban, Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, yesterday unveiled a 25 year environmental plan which aims to tackle the UK’s plastic problem. The plan aims to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. The key provisions are:

  • introduction of “plastic-free” aisles in supermarkets;
  • extension of 5p carrier bag charge to all retailers in England;
  • potential introduction of taxes on single-use, plastic takeaway containers;
  • establishment of government fund for plastics innovation; and
  • commitment to use UK aid to help developing nations tackle plastic waste and pollution.

Although the announcement was widely welcomed, environmental groups were not impressed that the promises are wooly and have no legal force. Many also baulked at the 25-year timeframe, criticising the lack of urgent action. There is the cynical view that the announcement was just a clever bit of electioneering to attract more young voters for whom the environment is an important issue. However, the plastic problem is a salient one and we can therefore only hope that each of these promises will be put into action sooner rather than later.

One positive piece of plastic-related news that has come out of the UK in the last few days is the coming into force of the plastic microbeads ban on 9 January. Initially the ban only covers manufacturing but as of July this year, it will also be extended to the sale of products with microbeads. Thousands of tonnes of plastic microbeads end up in the oceans each year, harming the flora and fauna and eventually ending up in the food that we eat. The UK is the first country to introduce a wholesale, robust ban and it is hoped that more will follow suit. Ireland is already looking to introduce its own ban in late 2018.

However, government “stick” is not the only way to achieve reductions in plastic waste. Companies should proactively review their plastic consumption and outputs and seek ways to improve efficiencies and reduce waste. For example, certain coffee shops in the UK already offer a 25p discount to people who bring in their own reusable coffee mugs or thermoses. However, this is poorly advertised. Starbucks is also planning to pilot a 5p surcharge on plastic cups in some London stores in February. These are positive steps forward. But are they enough?

Finally, on the back of the China ban, we may seem the emergence of a whole new local recycling industry. For example, Group Machiels, a waste management company, is planning to convert waste from landfill sites into energy and building materials using a technology called plasma. Eventually, the company aims to turn emptied landfill sites into local parks. Unfortunately, local support for such extensive landfill site excavations is currently low but this does sound like an innovative way to tackle one side of the problem.

One thing is for sure, plastic waste around the world is a catastrophic problem for our environment and ultimately for our health. The problem needs to be addressed both at source with a significant reduction in the generation of plastic products and through effective recycling of used plastics. The UK government’s 25 year plan is a positive step in the right direction, but it needs to be accelerated. Businesses and consumer attitudes also need to change. Plastic reduction must start today.

 

 

 

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