Plastic LandfillThe UK government has pledged to overhaul its waste system.  The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched consultations in view of presenting an Environment bill at the parliament. Four major consultations have been launched to curb plastic pollution and encourage a circular economy free from single-use plastics. The laws will be tightened: taxes will be introduced on plastic packaging not made from at least 30 percent recycled material, the responsibility of packaging producers will be heightened, a Deposit Return Scheme will be introduced, and recycling collections will be reviewed.

Transforming plastic waste into a valuable product

The UK government has decided to go further and faster in view of reducing, reusing, recycling and diminishing waste. As Michael Gove, UK Environment Secretary, pinpointed in a statement, the aim of the government is to shift away from a ‘throw-away’ society and encourage domestic recycling.

To attain this objective, it has defined four major changes:

Reviewing producer responsibility

The government is considering expanding plastic producer responsibility by obligating them to pay the whole amount for the disposal of their packaging. Currently, they pay about 10 percent of the total cost of disposal as per the producer responsibility program introduced in 1997. This program proved to be successful as the percentage of plastic waste that was recycled in the country spiked from 25 percent to 64.7 percent in 2016.

By making plastic producers pay for the whole cost, the government is hoping that producers will be pressed to use materials that can be easily recycled. During the consultation on this particular issue, the UK and Welsh Government and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland (DAERA) will examine various ways to make it easier for consumers to return beverage containers. This, in turn, should increase recycling rates and reduce plastic waste.

To design a coherent UK-wide system, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Administrations have decided to work closely on this policy. In the same vein, they want to probe the bigger impact of such a policy since it can impact on the grocery bills of citizens, on local authority collection of materials, on  carbon emissions from increased transport and movement, just to name a few. This consultation should also pave the way for amendments regarding the very definition of plastic. It will be reviewed to include bio-based plastic and plastics that are biodegradable, compostable or oxo-degradable, and fossil-based plastic as well.

Imposing a “world leading” tax on plastic packaging

Another policy that the government is planning to come up with is on a “world leading” tax on plastic packaging consisting in imposing a considerable tax on the import or production of plastic packaging that does not consist of at least 30 percent recycled material. This tax should be enforced in April 2022. The government has worked on this policy after gathering evidence in 2018 about single-use plastics. It was observed that it is more costly for companies to use recycled plastic than new plastic. As such, the majority of plastic packaging is made from new plastics, entailing considerable environmental impacts as it necessitates supplementary resource extraction and processing, as well as more energy use and emissions. The introduction of such a tax should act as a financial counter-pressure to help tackle the two million tons of plastic packaging used yearly in the UK and accounts for two-thirds of all plastic waste in the country.

Armed with this new policy, the government hopes to drive sustained use of more recycled plastic while transforming existing plastic into a valued resource. The decision-makers highlighted that the tax will be set at a rate that provides clear economic incentive for businesses to increase demand for recycled plastic and levels of collection and recycling of plastic waste in its wake.

This tax will complement the reviewed Packaging Producer Responsibility regulations, providing businesses with suitable incentives to gauge the impact of their plastic packaging decisions and invest in the development of more sustainable packaging.

Establishing consistency in recycling collections

In parallel, the government is also working on creating a reliable collection of waste so that households can easily separate their items for recycling while setting minimum standards for local authorities. It has been agreed that recycling collections should be improved; a consistent set of recyclable materials should hence be defined so that it applies across the UK to dissipate any kind of confusion that exists today. It has been reported that households find it difficult to grasp what can be recycled and what should not be dumped in the recycle bin. This confusion has even led to a sense of disengagement towards recycling even though when compared to 2011, recycling rates have swollen.

Creating a sustainable Deposit Return Scheme

Since the approach towards combating plastic pollution is multi-pronged, the UK government is simultaneously working on drafting a sustainable Deposit Return Scheme for cans, glass and plastic bottles as such a scheme can radically reduce the estimated three billion plastic bottles that end up in landfills, are littered or are incinerated today.

The government is considering two models. The “all-in” model would allow consumers to return plastic bottles for a variety of common beverage. The second bottle focuses mainly on the “on-the-go” containers that can contain about 750 millilitres or less.

An Environment bill will be presented at the Parliament

Consultations on all these areas will last for 12 weeks. A plan will then be drafted as part of an Environment bill that will be presented at the Parliament soon. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth have reacted positively to these decisions, namely the tax and the Deposit Return Scheme. Its spokesperson Julian Kirby has, nonetheless, stressed that the proposed tax rate be reviewed periodically to increase the minimum amount of recycled material.