We’ve been consumed by the plastic crisis over the last few months. At times it seems those in power have been listening. But did Monday’s budget bring any magic solutions? On a mission to end the Age of Plastic, Lucy Siegle was listening out.
Hey, as it’s hallowe’en, it seems an appropriate time to ask: how frightened are you by the plastic pandemic? The latest documentaries to reveal the impact of our depend on sporks and crisp bags – A Plastic Planet and Drowning in Plastic – are scary enough to watch tonight. As I point out in my book, Turning the Tide on Plastic: how humanity (and you) can make the globe clean again, since plastic was commercialised and brought to market (in the 1950s) 8.3 billion tonnes has been created. This the weight of one billion elephants! Shockingly 79% of that plastic is still with us, in the form of pollution. Wherever we have looked for plastic we have found it and that includes in our guts.
But as you can also tell from the title of my book I don’t want you to freak out because we can turn the tide. But we do need to scale down the volume of plastic in our lives, right now, right this minute. To do that we also need governments and global communities to act to give us the infrastructure for radical disruption. This week the budget presented a big opportunity to call time on unnecessary and polluting plastic. Did it deliver?
I sat with my oversized BBC-issue headphones in the newsroom as The Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered the budget in Parliament. For those of us playing ‘budget bingo’ – hey you’ve got to maximise your chances of staying awake – and interested in the planet, we were listening out for big plastic announcements. We had reason to believe there would be a few, and that these would include the so-called latte levy. This is the name given to a tax on 2.5 billion single use cups that become waste every year in the UK after being used for just minutes for drinks. Although they look like paper, they are actually lined with plastic. Only two paper mills in the UK are equipped to process them, and in practice very few are ‘recycled’. The official statistics suggest only one in every four hundred (I think this is over generous). Last year the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on Disposable Packaging Coffee Cups and showed how the number is projected to grow. It looked very much like the industry was about to have its wings clipped through a tax.
But guess what? No tax. The Chancellor said having looked at the issue he was going to let the industry make good on promises to reduce its impact. Many campaigners were dumfounded that he missed the opportunity to tackle a growing source of single use plastic pollution. Julian Kirby, campaigner for Friends of the Earth, pronounced himself astonished that the Chancellor has ‘gone cold on a ‘latte levy’, just when we needed him to turn up the heat on plastic polluters.’
Because it’s Hallowe’en we must ask what spooked the Chancellor? It is likely that the main industry bodies put the frighteners on. An industry survey on placing a 25p levy on beverage cups suggested that just 5.7% of customers switch to a reusable cup, and that many of us would decide simply go without a drink, killing the industry (the PCA says £819 million would be lost from the UK economy). I don’t know about you, but I would walk across hot coals to get my coffee of a morning. Carrying a Keepcup (other reusables are available) is hardly going to deter me. It’s also a projection that doesn’t take into account other smarter reusable formats, such as cup libraries.
And we’ve been here before. Remember how the plastic bag industry lobbied against the introduction of the ‘plastic bag tax’? I do! Lobby groups predicted it would be the end of the world and ruin everything. What actually happened? We scaled down our usage, from 140 plastic bags per year to 19. Many of us learned to carry a reusable carrier bag. No drama.
The announcement on a new tax on virgin plastics, however, cheered us all up a bit. Philip Hammond announced that there would be a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging when it contains less than 30% recycled plastic. It is true that we have a real problem as hardly any of our plastic products contain plastic recycled from other plastic bottles (end-to-end recycling) or indeed any bits of pre-used plastic at all. Getting recycled plastic into new plastic products is indeed a keystone when it comes to transforming the market. At the moment there is nothing to incentivise manufacturers who push plastic packaging on to the market without any idea of how it will be collected, sorted and recycled.
The new tax will come into effect on 1st April 2022. Apart from that we don’t know exactly how this tax will work or how much it will penalise manufacturers who continue to throw out plastic in this way, but I passionately hope it will cause a shift in mindset and design practices. Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned that plastic recycling in the UK is failing. The Environment Agency has launched investigation into the plastics recycling industry accused of ‘widespread fraud’. Our government has under-invested in recycling infrastructure, pushing the problem abroad and we’ve collectively failed to get a grip on the volume of plastic (much of it unnecessary and unwanted) that invades our lives, and pollutes our planet. Reporting by Greenpeace’s Unearthed team and The Telegraph showed the packaging of our favourite everyday products dumped in illegal sites in Malaysia.
This is shameful. In the next few weeks we are expecting the government’s Waste and Resources Strategy to flesh out these promises. It will need to be big and courageous. We’re off the starting grid, but only just.
How eco was the rest of the budget?
In a sense, the budget delivered in the House of Commons by the Chancellor is just the beginning. A 106-page Budget Red Book followed behind, with a lot more detail. This might have been the Red Book but it’s where you had to look to find anything else green. I wasn’t alone in noticing that the Chancellor didn’t utter the words ‘climate change’ once.
The planet is bigger than plastic. Many green organisations looking for a boost for renewable energy were left empty handed. The Solar Trade Association noted that absolutely no breaks were given to the solar industry to help remove barriers to solar and storage.
Tucked away in the red book, there was a reference to the carbon price floor set by UK government in the event of a ‘no-deal Brexit’. Carbon price would be £36 a tonne, which experts suggested should be enough to avoid the UK creeping back to coal when EU rules no longer apply. Climate campaigners may have breathed a very small sigh of relief. But there weren’t many (or indeed any) big eco celebrations going on. Many commentators pointed out that it was as if the IPCC report on 1.5 degree global warming that claimed headlines around the globe, had never existed. . The report came out just three weeks ago.
As Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas put it. ‘This is the most nature-depleted Budget in decades. His biggest announcement on the environment was abandoning the latte levy, and with it the pretence of caring about our natural world.’
Ouch. This will not be remembered as the green budget.
Lucy Siegle is a journalist and author. Her book Turning The Tide On Plastic: How Humanity (and You) can Make the Globe Clean Again is published by Trapeze and available from Amazon and all good bookshops.