25 Year Environment Plan and Plastic Pollution

Today the UK Government published their 25-year plan for the environment “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment”. This is a key document giving an indication of the Government’s direction of travel on environmental issues in England (environment is a devolved issue so this does not directly affect policy in Wales). This blog post gives a short summary of the points in the plan relating to plastic waste and reduction.

The Environment Plan sets out the Government’s comprehensive and long-term approach to protecting and enhancing England’s natural landscapes and habitats for the next generation. It opens with a rousing statement from Theresa May: “Our natural environment is our most precious inheritance”. Yes! This is absolutely right and the recognition of the importance of this is something which so many organisations and campaigns have been calling for. After such a good start, this can only be a positive document, setting out how the Government will be making drastic changes to reverse the horrendous decline in wildlife. Right?

Don’t get your hopes up.

In this article, I am concentrating on the goal of “Maximising resource efficiency and minimising environmental impacts at end of life” in Chapter 4, specifically the target of “Achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”. Certainly, there is nothing in this plan which anyone would argue against. Who, for example, would argue that getting rid of ‘avoidable’ plastic is a bad thing? No one.

My main issue with this plan is the lack of quantifiable targets and the use of subjective terms. For example, the term ‘avoidable’. This is incredibly subjective and the definition of “Avoidable means what is technically, environmentally and economically practicable” is hardly reassuring. Basically, the Government have given themselves ample wiggle room to justify ANY waste as UNavoidable. This is compounded by further terminology. The document includes targets such as “significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land”. If they had just left out the words ‘significantly reducing’ and ‘where possible’ that would have been a sentence to cheer about, but they have watered down any good intentions.

The second issue I have with this plan is the focus on recycling. In the section on achieving zero avoidable waste by the end of 2042, the plan sets out the need to consider re-use and recycling of plastics. Actions include making sure more plastics can be easily recycled and the quality of collected recycled plastics is improved. This, I would argue, is not the best way to achieve ‘zero avoidable waste’. We need to be investing in alternative, renewable and reusable packaging, like good old-fashioned glass.

Despite these rather disappointing aspects of the plan, there is a generally encouraging message. The Government has recognised that plastic waste is an issue and they are talking about making sure we get the most out of our resources, looking at their whole life-cycle and moving towards a circular economy approach. The plan states that “Urgent action to reduce plastic waste in the marine and open environment is needed and is vital for the future of our planet”. The plan even sets out the potential to ban problematic materials (as with microbeads) …but only where suitable alternatives exist.

Some of the positive actions specified in the plan are:
• Remove all consumer single use plastic from central government estate offices
• Extend the 5p plastic carrier bag charge to small retailers
• Support organisations to offer water refill points to encourage people to carry their own water bottle
• Work with retailers to explore plastic-free supermarket aisles
• Work with industry and local authorities to ensure a consistent set of materials are collected by all local authorities
• Help develop a standard for biodegradable plastic bags

These are all very good…but there is nothing challenging here. There are some major issues which are well documented which are not included . What I would have liked to see in the plan is some ambition. Examples which would have satisfied me and would be so easy and cause very little fuss include: tax (or better yet, ban them all together) plastic straws, plastic water bottles (check out this infographic on insinkerator on the impact of plastic bottles), non-biodegradable/non-recyclable takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic produce bags in supermarkets and all those ridiculous instances where plastic is used (you don’t need to wrap all fruit and vegetables in plastic!), and tax breaks (or better yet, actual funding) for zero waste initiatives, such as zero waste shops or those offering bulk buys and refills if you bring your own containers.

So all in all I would say that the plan has good intentions but needs to be more ambitious and to introduce some definitive, challenging targets if we are to make any major dent in the plastic tide currently reaching our environment.

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