05 July 2019

Why is there so much momentum around plastics regulation? What has been the impact of recent policies?

There has been growing momentum around plastics regulation in the past couple of years, due to a seismic shift in public awareness of the environmental impacts of consumer products often attributed to the ‘Blue Planet II effect’. Public opinion has pushed the UK government to take steps to mitigate the impact of plastic on the environment (and not just plastics - the rise in environmentalism across continental Europe evidenced in the recent MEP elections demonstrates a wider public concern about environmental issues).

The proposed coffee cup levy, also known as the ‘latte levy’, was proposed by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee to place a 25p tax on all disposable cups. It was however rejected by Chancellor Hammond in 2018, with the government pushing instead for voluntary action such as coffee shops offering discounts for customers with reusable cups.

Voluntary action, however, has been patchy. South West chain Boston Tea Party banned single use cups across all 21 stores, with great publicity, but with the loss of takeaway coffee sales worth £250,000. Without the stick of regulatory action, others may be reluctant to follow this example.

There are of course some great success stories. Sales in plastic bags—which are subject to a 5p charge introduced in 2015, have fallen significantly, with major supermarkets reporting a reduction of 86% since the charge was introduced, according to government figures.

Other potential options are under consideration. A deposit return scheme, where a small additional charge is refunded on return of the container, has been deployed elsewhere in Europe and has been subject to consultation in the UK, but it has been met with resistance in some quarters. We await to see what happens here.

What are the key regulatory drivers at international level?

Marine plastic pollution—the issue highlighted with such impact by Blue Planet II—demonstrates that plastic pollution is a global issue as well as a local one. 

In 2019, governments amended the Basel convention—an international convention that controls transboundary movements of hazardous waste—to include plastic waste in a framework that is legally-binding. Its purpose is to regulate global trade in plastic waste and to monitor transnational problems, such as plastics in the marine environment. In the same year, at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, 170 countries pledged to ‘significantly reduce’ the use of plastics by 2030. These two examples highlight the significance of international bodies driving both binding and non-binding action in the plastics movement.

Will the European Single Use Plastics Directive make much difference for the UK, given Brexit? What is its intended impact?

The Single-use Plastics Directive was adopted this year by the EU Parliament and it states that Member States shall prohibit the supply of single-use plastic straws, cutlery, plates, beverage stirrers, balloon sticks, cotton-bud-sticks and products made of oxo-degradable plastic from 2021 onwards. After the UK leaves the EU, the UK could choose to adopt a different approach in relation to single-use plastics, as it will not be bound by directives set by the EU. So far, the directive has had significant impact on domestic environmental policy, as there seems to be a race between the UK and the EU on who can introduce a plastic straw ban the soonest. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) policy at the moment is to match or exceed EU law on environmental matters, and with talks of a #GreenBrexit by Michael Gove, it would be a surprise if current UK policy suddenly drops behind the EU on plastic regulation. However, given the turmoil in British politics, nothing is certain!

What are the key legal initiatives being developed to control plastic waste nationally and does this differ across the devolved nations? 

Devolution is something of an issue for the plastics agenda—much like some well-publicised spats between UK and EU politicians on who can go furthest, fastest. We have also seen political one-upmanship between the UK’s nations, often to the consternation of business which would prefer a common approach. The plastics agenda highlights one of the areas of tension around the  devolution settlement—the tension between environmental protection (predominantly devolved) and a common market for products (mostly reserved to Westminster). Solutions to the environmental impact of plastics has to start with the product—in its design, its use, its labelling, etc. A life-cycle approach means control over the whole life cycle which is more difficult when parts of that cycle are devolved (waste disposal and recovery) and parts are not. To give just some examples of national approaches: 

  • in 2018, Defra announced a new English Resources and Waste strategy that outlines possible solutions to dealing with plastic waste, such as making recycling more consistent to generate
    better quality recyclates, and taxing manufacturers that use plastic packaging from virgin raw materials 
  • the UK government has also confirmed that a ban on single-use plastic would go ahead starting from April 2020, one year earlier than the EU 
  • the Welsh government recently launched a £6.5m fund for businesses to boost their use of recycled plastics, in an attempt to avoid future plastic taxes 
  • earlier this year, the Scottish government passed an initiative called ‘Action on Zero Plastic Waste Towns’ that aims to reduce single-use plastics in its coastal communities, and it has made
    its intention to ban plastic cotton-buds in 2019 clear in its programme for Scotland 2018-2019.

What about the voluntary sphere? There seem to be a lot of different groups making pledges about what they can achieve in terms of plastic waste reduction. Why are companies doing this? Is environmental social governance a factor?

The UK Plastics Pact is a good example of a set of voluntary pledges made by businesses across the plastics value chain—such as Asda, M&S, and Waitrose—aiming to transform the UK’s plastics system. Of course, with public opinion so strong, these large companies will see the opportunities for the brand in making such public pledges.

But others are taking voluntary steps too, and that’s often driven by the rise of sustainable finance and the need to measure and monitor environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors as well all more obvious financial performance factors. Reducing plastic waste is a positive step towards a good ESG score which can assist a business elsewhere—such as raising finance or attracting talent—whether or not the business has a consumer-facing brand.

Is the momentum going to last, or are we likely to see another big issue take over?

In my view, the ‘war on plastics’ has got legs. The strength of public feeling is strong enough to last, and is driving legislation to tackle the easier problems for which practical solutions are available. There is a danger here, of course. Rushed legislation can be poor legislation, and we must not forget that plastic is a valuable commodity that, as a lightweight and inert material, has a role to play in the fight against climate change. Yes, the low cost of the product means that market intervention is needed to stem the plastic tide, but the intervention needs to be considered and measured.

There is also concern that noise from politicians on plastics can mask the fact that the plastics agenda is just one part of complex web of environmental issues to be addressed—such as climate
change, air quality and biodiversity loss. 

In this year’s BBC Reith Lectures given by Lord Sumption, the ex-Supreme Court judge quoted the 18th century political philosopher David Hume with reference to the ‘incurable narrowness of soul that makes people prefer the immediate to the remote’. It struck me how much this applies to much of current environmentalism in wider society—we can see plastic bottles on our beaches, we demand action, and government acts. Is that action at the expense of action on climate change and biodiversity loss, which seem so much more remote to the average citizen?

Interviewed by Samantha Gilbert.

Originally published on LexisPSL.

Key contact

Michael Barlow

Michael Barlow Partner

  • Head of Environment
  • Head of Water
  • Head of ESG

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