Huge public support for tax on single-use plastics

162,000 responses were submitted to the Treasury’s call for evidence on how fiscal measures might be used to reduce consumption of single-use plastics in the UK.

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles
Kate Dickinson

The government has received an unprecedented level of responses to its consultation on how the tax system could be used to reduce plastic waste.

HM Treasury launched a consultation on the issue in March, which ran for two months and garnered 162,000 responses from members of the public – the highest number ever received by the Treasury to one call for evidence – it was revealed on Saturday (18 August). 222 different organisations also provided responses, covering campaign groups, charities, manufacturers, retailers and recyclers.

The call for evidence asked a number of questions on the production, consumption and disposal of single-use plastics, as well as delving into how exactly fiscal measures might be used to reduce reliance on disposal items across all of these stages.

There was strong support across the majority of responses for ‘some kind of tax, charge or ban on the retail of single-use items’ – particularly for cups, cutlery and sachets for sauce. The five pence plastic bag charge, in place in all UK nations since 2015, was held up by many as an example of the proven success of added charges on plastic items – with consumption of single-use carrier bags down by 85 per cent in England in the first six months of implementation.

From the responses, the Treasury stated that the following four areas had received significant support from the public:

  1. Using tax to shift demand towards recycled plastic inputs;
  2. Using tax to encourage items to be designed in a way that is easier to recycle;
  3. Taxes or charges on specific plastic items that are commonly used on-the-go and littered, in order to encourage a reduction in production and use; and
  4. Using tax to ensure that the right incentives are in place to encourage greater recycling of waste that is currently incinerated.

Policies that the government will take forward will be announced in the Budget later this year. These will build on actions already being taken, including plans to consult later this year on reform to the UK’s producer responsibility system, which sets out how much money plastic producers pay towards the collection and recycling of their products – the UK system has garnered criticism for requiring local authorities to shoulder the largest cost burden. Other planned consultations include one for a deposit return scheme for beverage containers and extensions to the existing plastic bag charge, both of which will come as part of the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, set to be published in the autumn.

Speaking during a visit to a plastic clean-up operation in Cornwall, the Exchequer Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Tackling the scandal of plastic pollution is one of our top priorities and we know the public is right behind us. I’ve been overwhelmed by the public support and the responses we’ve received will be invaluable as we develop our plans for using the tax system to combat this.

“Our duty to leave the environment in a better state than we found it is absolutely clear and what we’ve set out today is another important step to ensuring a cleaner, greener future for Britain.”

Louise Edge, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, commented on the vast number of responses to the call for evidence, saying: “This is practically a people’s plastic charter calling on the government to tax single-use plastic, incentivise recycled content, get rid of problem plastics and boost recycling rather than incineration. The so-called latte levy on disposable coffee cups seems inevitable now, but that should be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Also commenting on the consultation was Sian Sutherland, founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, which has been behind calls for ‘plastic-free aisles’ in supermarkets. Welcoming the vast number of responses to the consultation, Sutherland said: “The public have spoken and we are asking our elected government to show real leadership now. That means much more than a tokenist tax on unrecyclable plastic or a bottle deposit scheme. After a year of noise throughout the UK we need proper action rather than a sticking plaster approach.

"The facts are now out there – only nine per cent of our plastic is recycled in the UK. The only answer is to use less of this indestructible material in the first place and turn off the plastic tap. It must start with a dramatic reduction in the use of plastic to package our food and drink. We must incentivise those brands that are going plastic free.

"Those who continue to use plastic must be taxed heavily and that revenue ring fenced to build a waste management infrastructure that is relevant for today, not our plastic yesterday. Recycling – or what is actually always downcycling – plastic is not the answer.

"Eventually all plastic ends up in our environment. We have a rare moment in time where everyone is in agreement, we need to turn off the plastic tap. Do not let this moment go to waste with compromised measures."

The full rundown of responses to the consultation can be read on the HM Treasury website.