World Environment Day: Beating plastic pollution

Ed Thomas Tom Goldstone

By Ed Thomas, Tom Goldstone

World Environment Day, led by the United Nations, offers the opportunity to reflect on our actions to protect the planet and refocus on the need to keep global warming below 1.5°C this century. This year’s theme, #BeatPlasticPollution seeks to accelerate calls to action and a transition towards the circular economy.

Ranking second in the world for plastic waste per person per year, the UK is one of the worst culprits of plastic pollution. Unfortunately, plastic is a convenient, cheap, and ubiquitous material. With time mounting as we move towards a climate emergency, we all need to explore new ways to break our reliance on plastic. While they can certainly play their part, consumers and companies alone cannot drive the systemic change that’s required to reduce the use of plastics, and in particular single-use plastics in our society. But government leadership could take bold action to drive change by:

Creating the environment for change

There are three fundamental ways that the UK Government can create the optimal environment for change: incentivising solutions, making solutions financially viable, and ensuring consumers are informed.

Firstly, the UK Government should create a bolder policy to incentivise solutions. For recycling, the Government must accelerate plans to standardise which items are recycled across the country, to avoid confusion when citizens move districts. Although the Local Government Association is calling for additional funding to manage this change, the investment is justified by considering the long-term cost savings an efficient recycling system will bring to the country’s environment and economy. They could also ban plastics below a particular threshold of recycled material, restrict the use of virgin plastics, or develop the single-use plastic ban further to include tobacco filters and sachets. These types of restrictions would need to be accompanied by innovation grants that scale up nature-based solutions such as Notpla or technical solutions like Pulpac, so consumers are not left worse off through the intervention.

Beyond innovation grants, the Government could make plastic reducing solutions financially viable. By keeping plastics in use for as long as possible, the circular economy is an answer to beating plastic pollution. It could reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 percent by 2040 and reduce virgin plastic production by 55 percent. However, recycling, and reusing plastics requires reverse logistics which are considerably more expensive than throwing items to waste. Reverse logistics would be cheaper if the growth in electric vehicles is coupled with a dramatic increase in renewable energy. By optimising reverse logistics and increasing the cost of throwing plastic away, we might reach a tipping point where companies are financially incentivised to reuse and repurpose plastic.

The Government is in a position to ensure consumers are engaged with driving out plastic pollution. The UK’s household recycling rate of 44.1 percent, lies well below the European leaders Germany at 67.4 percent. While the UK is adopting some of Germany’s policies, such as the Deposit Return scheme and Extended Producer Responsibility, the gap between the two nations is no doubt harmed by the 84 percent of UK households who contaminate their recycling bins through well-intended ‘wish cycling’. Just as the ‘Think!’ campaign has been increasing road safety since 2000, an effective recycling information campaign led by the Government is essential for ensuring that policy and investment, successfully reduces plastic waste.

Leading by example as a buyer

Government procurement departments are not set up to make use of their substantial £290 billion annual buying power to eliminate plastic pollution – so what needs to change?

The Government could set more ambitious, mandatory, cross-government procurement standards for plastics. These should then be incorporated into all commercial activity in order for suppliers to qualify. We’re seeing this happen with great effect on carbon emissions, where companies bidding for government contracts worth more than £5 million a year must commit to achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050. A similar requirement for unnecessary or virgin plastics has the power to generate the systemic change that is required.

Changes in standards need to be complemented by an upskilling of commercial employees. They need to understand the risks associated with different forms of plastic and have relevant guidance to help them better address risks across all types of procurement activity, as risks will change in accordance with the industry. Crucially, commercial employees need to feel able to hold government suppliers to account.

This year’s World Environment Day invites us all to reflect on how best to beat plastic pollution. It’s clear the UK Government has the power to drive systemic change, which can be achieved by setting the right policy environment and leading by example as a buyer.

About the authors

Ed Thomas
Ed Thomas PA environmental sustainability expert
Tom Goldstone
Tom Goldstone PA public sector expert

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