The plastics crisis: a fork in the road moment?

Steve Hynd, Green Councillor and Policy Manager at City to Sea, explores what the next steps are for the Government in tackling plastic pollution.

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles
Cllr Steve Hynd

‘For fork's sake, ban the most polluting single-use plastics NOW’. That was the message on our placards outside Downing Street as we handed in a petition with over 117,000 signatures calling on the Government to ban some of the most polluting single-use plastic items now, like plastic forks. 

After we launched this petition, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a consultation proposing a ban of single-use plastic forks, plates and polystyrene food containers. There can be no doubt this is a big step forward in our efforts to tackle plastic pollution. In response, over 51,000 City to Sea and 38 Degrees supporters responded to the Defra consultation supporting the ban, arguing that it needs to be introduced asap, not in 2023 as the Government currently plans. 

Megan Bentall, Head of Campaigns at 38 Degrees, who is used to dealing with large public outpourings of support said: “There’s no doubt about it – this is an absolutely massive show of public support for finally banning these unnecessary and polluting plastic items. 

“The fact that more than 50,000 people have taken the time to participate in a detailed government consultation on this issue is the clearest demonstration yet that we are simply done with these plastic items polluting our environment.” 

The UK: a world leader in tackling plastic pollution?

With a sympathetic government department, huge public support and a pressing environmental crisis, I am confident that we will see these most polluting single-use plastics banned. Undoubtedly a huge win. Our political leaders tell us then that this positions us as world leaders in tackling plastic pollution. 

This last point is far from the truth. The reality is that we are struggling to keep up with the very minimum standards mandated to EU member states through the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive – the same bans that Scotland has said will introduce a year before England, leaving serious questions about internal UK markets divergence. The reality is that this ban, which is being introduced with dragging feet, is the first baby step on a much longer journey. 

It's with this in mind that I wrote a letter with Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, Chief Executive at Keep Britain Tidy and Jamie Peters, Interim Director of Campaigning Impact at Friends of the Earth to the Environment Minister, George Eustice, outlining the next steps we felt the Government needs to take if they are serious about tackling plastic pollution. 

The letter argues that the Government needs to go beyond just banning the odd item and instead set ambitious targets in the Environment Act. These, we argued must include: 

An at least 50 per cent reduction in non-essential single-use plastics by 2025.

An overarching plastics reduction target, including but not limited to single-use plastics. This would ensure a progressive reduction in the overall use of all non-essential plastics, building towards preventing plastic pollution of the environment as far as possible by 2042. This must address those harder to tackle plastics from vehicles tyres and brakes and from clothes among others, and the specific problem of microplastics.  

Reuse targets of at least 25 per cent of packaging being reusable by 2025, rising to 50 per cent by 2030. This would guarantee that a large proportion of the reduction in plastic pollution is met by an increase in the market share of reusables, and make sure substitutions of single-use plastics for other damaging single-use materials are avoided. 

The solutions of the future

Let’s take each of these points in turn. The first is to set a legally binding target to reduce single-use plastics by 50 per cent by 2025. Sure, the ban on the most polluting items will go some way towards this. But it is also an acknowledgement that our waste and resource systems are stretched to breaking point and we cannot just recycle our way out of this crisis. We need to reduce the amount we produce. When we are flooding the world with plastics, we can’t just need to mop the mess up – we also need to turn the taps off.  

Secondly, we called for an overarching plastics reduction target, including but not limited to single-use plastics. This acknowledges that a lot of plastic pollution does not come from plastics we can see and touch like bottles and plastic forks. Instead, microplastics and nanoplastics are shed directly from clothing and car tyres. This isn’t a small change either, the microplastics from car tyres are responsible for more than 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year. A recent study that found nanoparticles dating back to the 1960s at both poles were surprised to find a quarter of the particles were from vehicle tyres. 

This problem needs to be addressed head-on as part of our wider efforts to tackle plastic pollution. And this is why we sought reassurance and sight of the Government’s plan to tackle plastic pollution in its entirety, not just as a waste and resource question. Do they even have one? 

We, politely, pointed out that there was already one in place in the form of the Plastic Pollution Bill that is due back for its second reading on March 18. This isn’t the only way of tackling the issue, but it is a concrete and well thought out example of a legislative approach to tackling plastic pollution in its entirety. At the moment, we don’t know if the Government has an equivalent plan in place. If it doesn’t, it needs one urgently, and if it does, we urgently need to see it to feed into it and make it as good as possible. 

Lastly, we called for a reuse target of at least 25 per cent of packaging being reusable by 2025, rising to 50 per cent by 2030. We simply can’t talk about plastic pollution and a reduction in single-use plastics without talking about increasing the market share of reuse and refillable packaging. For consumers, this could be normalising refilling water bottles from public fountains, drinking coffee from reusable cups or topping up cereals from supermarket dispensers. 

Consumer demands and market movements

These are the packaging solutions of the future that we need to legislate for now. We know from our own research that there is consumer demand for this. Polling by City to Sea and Friends of the Earth to mark World Refill Day, found three out of four people (74 per cent) would like to see more refill options, for things like dried foods, laundry detergents and takeaway coffees, available to them so they can limit the amount of single-use plastic in their lives. While more than half of all people (55 per cent) think supermarkets and big-name brands are not doing enough to address plastic pollution. Crucially, 81 per cent of Brits want the UK government to make refillable products easier to buy and more widely available, as a main priority for reducing plastic pollution.

We also know there is movement in the markets towards these solutions. Coca-Cola recently announced a commitment to 25 per cent of packaging to be reusable by 2030 (something that I welcomed with healthy scepticism here). What we now need is for the Government to commit to legally binding targets to give smaller and medium-sized businesses the confidence and reassurances they need to invest in these systems. This answers not only a consumer demand, but a planetary ecological necessity.

The next six months are crucial and what we have outlined here is a pathway for the Government to take to show it is truly committed to tackling the plastic crisis (before anyone comments “what about the climate crisis?”, it’s important to remember these are two sides of the same coin). 

While some might sneer at the small steps that are being taken to tackle plastic pollution, I see them as important movement. This is a rolling start for a much bigger journey. But if Defra wants to convince us that they are serious they need to show some urgency in these first steps and to also signal that they understand the length of the journey that they are on. 

If they can show they are travelling the right path, we are there as a partner to travel with and to help carry the load. But if they fall from the tracks, we won’t hesitate in telling them where they’ve gone wrong and supporting them to get back on track.