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It’s time plastic producers cleaned up their act

It’s time plastic producers cleaned up their act

The financial burden of waste management costs already fall on taxpayers, and now it seems the battle to beat plastic does too. Enough. It’s time for plastic producers to clean up their act.

This year, UN World Environment Day is focusing on the hottest environmental topic of the moment – plastic. The UN is leading with the message that we should ‘break-up’ with plastic by changing our consumption patterns – refusing plastic and reusing where we can.

There is certainly a place for promoting environmentally sustainable consumption, but the persistence of this messaging is becoming a distraction from the real problem: the over-production of plastic, the environmentally damaging practices of many big businesses, and their lack of responsibility for the consequences. 

In the UK, 90% of all waste clean-up costs currently fall on the taxpayer. This includes the costs for running recycling systems, bin collection and litter clear up. This means polluters can get away with flooding the market with pointless plastic, while asking us to foot the cleaning bill.

The plastics industry would like us to believe they understand the scale of the problem and are willing to help solve it. That’s why they’ve come out offering pacts and targets of their own, intended to fool those in government into thinking the industry is playing its part.

But, as we’ve seen before (as far back as 1972 and 1981 industry have been saying they’ll improve the recyclability of their products), industry announcements claiming they’ll ‘do better’ are nothing more than empty promises with the aim of dissuading the government from making them pay to clean up their mess. Meanwhile, awareness campaigns keep the focus on us – consumers and taxpayers - who have little choice in what plastic packaging we can avoid buying, rather than targeting the packaging producers.

Solving the plastic problem has to be the producers’ responsibility and we need real, systemic, government-led change to ensure this happens. More ‘awareness-raising’ funded by industry won’t create the large-scale change we need.  

We have two excellent examples of systemic changes in England. The 5p plastic bag charge, which we campaigned for as part of the Break the Bag Habit coalition, has seen 9 billion fewer plastic bags being used since 2015.

Likewise, our recent successful campaign for the introduction of a deposit return scheme in the UK will lead to a system that could reach a 90% return rate for recycling on drinks containers – a system that will be fully paid for by the polluter. It’s hard to imagine an awareness campaign encouraging people to carry reusable bags or recycle more bottles would have had the same effect.

Universal behaviour change has to come from system change. That’s why we support calls for producers to take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of their products by paying 100% of the clean-up costs, and the introduction of taxes and charges at the consumer level to encourage a shift to sustainable alternatives. For example, a so-called ‘latte levy’ on non-reusable coffee cups would work in a similar way to the 5p carrier bag charge.

The government can, and should, be taking stronger actions against plastic, as they have with the 5p bag charge and deposit return system. But if they are to live up to their vision of being the government that cracks our plastic problem, they have to stop pandering to the plastic industry’s empty promises, or giving the green light to companies like Ineos, who want to frack England’s countryside for gas to make more pointless plastic.

Being an ethical consumer is great for some people. I, for one, love my Keep Cup, Klean Kanteen and array of linen tote bags, but the onus needs to stop being on individual choice. Not everyone has the time, resources or interest to make different choices. It’s time to stop demonising the consumer and look at the real problem: polluters who produce pointless plastic and pay next to nothing to clear it up.

So, this World Environment Day, we need to seize the opportunity of this global spotlight on plastic. We need to push for producers to take responsibility, and for government to lead the way in driving systemic behaviour change on plastics by saying to the plastic industry, loud and clear, we’ve had enough.

Enough plastic. Enough kicking the problem into the long grass with ‘awareness raising’ that barely scratches the surface of the plastic waste pile. Enough of paying for their mess. It’s time they cleaned up their act.  

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5 June 2018

We need to push for producers to take responsibility, and for government to lead the way in driving systemic behaviour change on plastics by saying to the plastic industry, loud and clear, we’ve had enough.




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