4 January 2019

The right ways to reduce plastic pollution

By Lucky Dube

In recent years, the reputation of plastics has decreased considerably, with growing numbers of anti-plastics campaigns and documentaries on the effects of plastics pollution. These developments have no doubt raised the public consciousness on the disadvantages of using plastics and will have probably encouraged many to be more mindful of how they use plastics. A poll by Ipsos MORI found that at seven in eight adults aged 16 to 75 are at least “fairly concerned” about the effects of plastic packaging on the environment, with 41 per cent of those polled being very concerned about the issue. Seventy five per cent said they would re-use disposable items such as plastic bags and plastic bottles to reduce the problems caused by unnecessary use of plastic. The same poll found that 40 per cent thought the responsibility for finding a way to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging rested with companies that produce packaged goods, companies that sell packaged goods, government, and consumers equally.

Despite their worsening reputation, plastics have a lot to offer. They are lightweight, resource-efficient, hygienic, shatter proof, moisture-resistant – they protect against micro-organisms, moisture humidity, and gasses. Indeed if you consider the long and complex food supply chains of, say, food retailers plastic packaging protects food and as such provides consumers with the assurance that what they’re buying is safe, nutritious, and has longer use-by dates.

What documentaries on plastics pollution have highlighted is how society has not found a way to enjoy the benefits of plastics while minimising its environmental impact. According to the European Environment Agency the UK recycled 44 per cent of municipal waste in 2014, behind Luxembourg, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, and Germany that recycled 47, 50, 54, 55, 56, and 64 per cent respectively. Policy in this area does not do enough to minimise its production, encourage its re-use, and provide incentives for people to recycle.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is trying to change that with its recently published Resources and Waste strategy. Two reforms stand out: increased extended producer responsibility (EPR) and a deposit return scheme.

EPR is a policy approach where producers contribute to the cost of treating or disposing the products they produce. In the case of the resources and waste strategy, costs associated with dealing with the impacts on the environment and society are also taken into account. Under the plans, producers would pay lower fees if their products are easy to repair, reuse, or recycle. In so doing, producers of plastic packaging are incentivised to produce more environmentally friendly products and decrease the amount of packaging they produce.

One criticism of this approach is that increased costs for producers would be passed on to consumers through higher prices. That may be true, but consumers already pay for the treatment and disposal of waste through council tax, an approach that does not incentivise producers make more environmentally friendly products. Additionally, prices play a role in determining how much of a resource is used and how the resulting products are transferred to people. If the cost of managing the end of life of a product is reflected in its price, less environmentally friendly products will be more expensive in which case consumers will likely opt for less pricey and more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Deposit return schemes (DRS) charge a deposit upfront on a product in a container (like a bottle of water or a can of soft drink) when is returned to the consumer when it is returned. Such a scheme would go some way to ensure that more plastic bottles, cans, and glass bottles that aren’t currently recycled (4 billion, 2.7 billion, 1.5 billion respectively) are.

Recently Iceland, the supermarket chain, reported strong uptake for its trial DRS across four of its 800+ stores with over 311,500 bottles recycled and £30,000 of deposits given to shoppers since the scheme’s introduction in early 2018. Some European countries where DRS is used in conjunction with kerbside recycling collections have achieved recycling rates of 95-98 per cent of bottles, compared to recycling rates of 70 per cent in the UK.

A DRS would have to be designed in such a way as to compliment other systems to encourage recycling, like recycling bins in town centres and household collection, and to not over complicate the process of returning a container. For instance, DRS in Germany has been criticised for being too complex as producers collect bottles from collection points in retail spaces but only in shops with whom they have a relationship. The intention of the scheme was to increase numbers of re-usable bottles and the German government introduced quotas for producers to mandate use such bottles, which have since been removed. The overall proportion of reusable bottles has decreased from nearly 80 per cent to below 50 per cent since the introduction of the scheme. Additionally, deposits are paid by the retailer and passed on to the consumer – if bottles are not returned the retailer can keep the deposit which does little to incentivise retailers to encourage consumers to return bottles. Recycling rates may be higher in Germany, but the UK government should seek to avoid such complexities when designing a DRS for England (DEFRA cannot develop a UK wide scheme as waste and recycling policy is a devolved matter).

A well designed DRS system should allow people to recycle any recyclable bottle or can, at any collection point.

It is hard to disagree with the 40 per cent in the aforementioned poll who believe in a joint responsibility between producers, retailers, government, and consumers to tackle issues associated with plastics. Government is moving in the right direction by incentivising good behaviour in consumers, and incentivising producers to develop more environmentally friendly products.

It is also pleasing to see that the strategy is not underpinned by the view that plastics are inherently bad and their use should be phased out. Plastics have many positives and lives have been enhanced by plastic products, we are now on the way to ensuring that the damage they can do to the environment is limited.

Lucky Dube is an intern at the Centre for Policy Studies.