This article was originally published in the Green European Journal on 17 May 2018.
On the last day of June 2018, environmental campaigners in the UK had a rare cause to celebrate. A ban on the sale of cosmetic products with added plastic microbeads came into effect, beating the equivalent US ban by one day, although following France’s ban, which came into effect earlier in the year. It was a decision made after a huge public campaign, featuring both specialist groups such as the Plastic Soup Foundation and more generalist organisations such as Greenpeace, operating in the UK and across the developed world.
The news came as the UK Government decided to go ahead with a new runway at Heathrow airport despite the Climate Change Commission strongly signalling that it blows a hole in the UK’s legally binding emissions targets, continues its championing of fracking for gas despite massive public opposition while shooting down an innovative proposed tidal lagoon to generate renewable energy, and large areas of fragile upland peatland on Saddleworth Moor in Northern England went up in flames, with management for the ‘sport’ of driven grouse shooting implicated.
Growing momentum on tackling plastics
The Green Party of England and Wales joined the microbeads campaign in February 2016, at a time when the Conservative Government was still trying to hold its preferred ideological line on most issues: voluntary action by manufacturers and retailers, a promised slow phase-out. But the momentum, which saw many retailers promising to act far sooner, eventually became irresistible and the government announced the ban in September 2016. Importantly, it included so-called ‘biodegradable’ products, which cannot be guaranteed to be anything of the kind in real-world conditions. However, it failed to look beyond the cosmetics sector into products such as those used in cleaning buildings, which remain an issue.
The microbead ban followed an earlier, much-delayed decision in England (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland acted sooner) which bought in a five pence levy on plastic carrier bags in October 2015, something which Ireland and Denmark had done as far back as 2003. As has often been the case, this was weaker and more limited than it might have been, applying only to larger retailers (those employing more than 250 staff, although the government is now consulting on extending it). Nonetheless, it has slashed carrier bag usage by around 85 per cent, with an estimated 9 billion fewer bags used in the UK by the end of 2017.
Since then, the issue of plastics more generally has soared up the national political agenda. A tipping point was reached with the BBC TV programme Blue Planet II, in which national treasure David Attenborough called for urgent action to protect the marine environment. However, that moment reflected considerable, gradual progress made on the local and regional levels by organisations such as City to Sea in Bristol (which worked particularly to put plastic cotton bud sticks on the agenda), Cornwall-based Surfers Against Sewage, which is also active across the UK, and the circular-economy focused Ellen MacArthur Foundation (whose figure that the weight of plastics in the ocean is set to exceed the weight of fish by 2020 has been much cited). Young people in particular have embraced the cause, with activities in schools, colleges, and universities.
Product bans: singling out the biggest culprits
The UK government’s focus has largely remained, thus far, on individual products. Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced he wanted to bring in a ban on plastic straws (8.5 billion of which are estimated to be used in the UK each year), although claimed that could only happen after Brexit, provoking a long row with the EU (France has already given notification of plans to ban plastic glasses, plates, and cotton buds). This looks likely to be overtaken by events, with public pressure leading to an increasingly long list of businesses announcing plans to end their use of these items, at least as a routine provision.
Another big focus has been disposable cups. British culture of eating on the go, partly a response to long commuting times, has meant these are noticeably far more common than in much of the rest of the EU. Each day seven million disposable coffee cups are used in the UK, which equates to 2.5 billion a year. Almost none of these are recycled, the manufacturing method (incorporating plastic for waterproofing) making them expensive and difficult to do so. There was talk of a ‘latte levy’ of 25 pence per cup, although that was rejected by the UK Government. A number of major chains have introduced discounts for bringing your own reusable cup – Pret a Manger being the highest at 50 pence – but it is telling that the standard phrase that baristas call out for such an order is ‘special cup’, demonstrating how rare it still is for reusable cups to be presented by consumers.
Another product that has come under significant attention in the UK is bottled water. Many of the 16 million plastic bottles that end up in landfill or the environment each day in the UK contain this product, which is vastly more expensive, environmentally damaging (with extensive transport emissions), and ultimately no better than tap water. The organisation Refill has spread fast in seeking to talk about this problem and provide alternatives in the form of sources of tap water when people are out and about. But public water fountains remain extraordinarily rare – and often not to be found, particularly in train stations and airports, places where they are most needed.
There has also been some shock, and a scramble by companies to react, to the news that most tea bags, a staple of British life (only four per cent of drinkers use loose-leaf tea, which also usually comes in a plastic sack), contain plastic. The issue of disposable wipes has also struggled to at least the edge of the public agenda, with a particular stress on their impact on sewerage systems, but with little government reaction.
The focus on individual products still addresses only a tiny fraction of plastic waste, much of which is utterly unnecessary. Artists and campaigners have highlighted the sheer bulk and ubiquity of plastics in our lives and environment, with one finding that he had used 4,490 pieces in a year. When Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack tried to spend a week without plastic, she found out just how difficult it was, with makeup and greeting cards presenting two of the less obvious challenges. Even beer bottles had plastic under the lid.
The government has announced that it wants to see an end to all ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, an announcement greeted with widespread derision, both for the lack of ambition and the question of how an unstable minority government can make such a long-term plan. It has also announced that it wants to bring in a bottle and can deposit scheme (to also include glass and metal containers) to boost recycling, and is currently consulting on its structure. When I share such news on social media, I get a shocked reaction from many corners of the globe: “You don’t have one already?”
Industry has tried to make the focus on switching to ‘recyclable’ plastics – and attacked those, this writer included, who have questioned this approach and pointed out that ‘recyclable’ does not mean ‘going to be recycled’. Currently 75 per cent of post-consumer plastic waste is sent to landfill in the UK. Many have tried to suggest that ‘biodegradable’ plastics might be an alternative to our current products, but this ignores their disruptive impact on recycling systems and the limited conditions in which they can degrade.
A lot of the coverage and discussion of the issue has focused on individual action – consumers taking choices to avoid plastics – but as many have discovered, this is far from easy and (often) far from cheap. ‘Loose’ fruit and vegetables are often more expensive than those wrapped in plastic, and the fast-spreading ‘packaging-free’ stores are often located in the richer areas of cities for good business reasons (their products, being specialist, are often more expensive than the supermarket options). It takes time and energy to carefully choose the plastics-free or lower-plastic options, something that many do not have.
Plastic waste as litter on the streets and public spaces is also an issue of inequality, with takeaway food stores – cheap, filling, and usually unhealthy – being concentrated in poorer areas and producing huge quantities of waste that often ends up on the streets, with both environmental and social impacts.
Green ideas for fighting a throwaway society
The Green Party of England and Wales’ focus, in this as in other areas of environmental and social impact, has been to force system change, to ensure that manufacturers and retailers make plastic-free, or at least low-plastic, options the easiest, cheapest, simplest option. It has called for a complete ban on single-use consumer plastics (except where it can be shown to be essential). That would involve a transformation on the high street, but one that is not, really, that hard to imagine. On coffee cups, the German city of Freiburg has shown the way with reusable cups that can be returned to any store. The same principle could be applied to sandwiches, wraps, and other take-away items.
Better still, we could look to encourage and support more eat-in options, something that would, as with so many other Green policies, have other excellent outcomes. Britain is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness – eating with others would be a step towards tackling that. Washing up those china plates and metal cutlery would mean more jobs. Innovative schemes like the UK-wide Real Junk Food Project, which offers recovered food based on the ‘pay as you feel’ principle, reduce food waste and provide affordable options for those struggling to feed themselves and their families. Encouraging and supporting home and community food growing would cut plastic waste, improve the frequently poor quality of the British diet, which is worst in the poorest areas, and improve food security.
Many of these proposals will meet with cries of ‘unrealistic’. But what is profoundly, obviously, unrealistic, is to think we can keep choking this planet with plastic. The damage we have already done is enormous, and cannot be allowed to continue, let alone increase.
Prospects for change: political momentum and obstacles
On plastic waste there is a hierarchy of urgency and understanding of the need for change. The public is very clearly in the lead, supported by NGOs and campaigners. Companies are trailing a considerable way behind, but in many cases see the need to engage with public concerns, with levels of activity and interaction on social media very high.
Westminster lags far behind, with the Conservatives reluctant to upset the multinational companies they regard as their natural allies (and often party donors) and tied to the ideology of minimal government ‘interference’ and regulation, whilst also being utterly consumed by Brexit (and with the looming possibility of US pressure to further reduce controls). Labour has shown little more than lip service on the issue, with its focus far more on keeping food ‘cheap’ in financial terms for what is seen as its natural constituency.
Wales and Scotland can be expected to continue to lead ahead of England, but with limited capacity to change the behaviour of multinational manufacturers or chain supermarkets. City and regional governments have little or no legal power to take action beyond the provision of public water fountains or cleaning up litter, but face massive financial constraints under the fast-tightening grip of Westminster austerity.