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Why we need taxes to tackle our plastic problem

Why we need taxes to tackle our plastic problem

Plastic – the evidence tells us that it is cheap, durable, and flexible. The evidence tells us it’s a useful material, and one that we will need for many years to come. The evidence tells us that plastic gets littered, that it breaks down into microplastics, and that this can have devastating consequences for the natural environment.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has been campaigning to stop littering in our countryside since we were founded almost 100 years ago. In that time, we’ve gathered quite a lot of evidence. So we challenge any industry that produces pollutants when they suggest debates about how we deal with plastic in the future are based on ‘rhetoric’ and ‘hysteria’.

Commitments from the British Plastics Federation ‘to leave our environment in a better place for generations to come’ are welcome, and sound undeniably familiar to those of our incumbent government – but will they make the same commitments to reduce single-use plastics as the Government? Probably not.

We agree that interventions should not cost consumers. Instead, we want the Government to introduce economic measures that change the behaviour of companies and individuals, as this is where the evidence has shown us that the quickest and largest gains can be made. We simply don’t have time for anything less.

It is not true that taxation would be a ‘punishment’ for manufacturers. Many countries in Europe place fees on producers as part of an extended producer responsibility approach – these ensure that the manufacturers of a polluting material pay their fair share towards collection, recovery and recycling.

In Norway, there is an ‘environmental tax’ which is applied on a sliding scale – if a manufacturer can show that most of the material they place on the market is recycled then the tax applied per item is reduced, and can be completely avoided. This has led to significant improvements to material collection systems, leading in turn to a cleaner, healthier Norway.

Importantly, this sort of tax is designed to be avoided, as all producers have to do is change their behaviour, to improve and to innovate: designing packaging that is easier to recycle; increasing the recycled content of their products; removing difficult to recycle materials from the market, such as black plastic trays; and investing in tried-and-tested collection systems, such as a deposit return scheme, that increase capture and recycling rates to the levels which would finally see the Government realising its ambitions for resource efficiency and zero waste.

Currently in the UK, producers do not pay their fair share to ensure that the plastic they place on the market is properly collected. That’s why they campaign against and complain about any positive changes that would protect the environment, because they rightly cost them more.

It is completely wrong and deliberately misleading to label an increase in the plastic bag charge – or indeed any charge on a single-use item with a readily available replacement – a ‘tax’ that ‘would hit consumers’ pockets’. Taxes are unavoidable and paid to the Treasury, paying 5p for a plastic bag is voluntary.

Similarly, deposit return schemes, which are the optimal collection system for cans and bottles, come with no cost to individuals. A small deposit is paid upfront and reimbursed when the bottle or can is returned to a collection point. As long as consumers do the right thing, and return the bottle, they are not worse off. This is the polluter pays principle in action.

The plastic bag charge has been an unqualified success, reducing usage by more than 80%, with many supermarkets increasing the charge of their own volition. A deposit return scheme would have similar results, with recycling rates of 95% or higher in many countries that operate them.

The British Plastics Federation call for interventions that will work, and incentives to support innovation. A tax to remove difficult-to-recycle items from the supply chain, a charge on plastic items that can easily be avoided by consumers, and a deposit return scheme on drinks containers of all sizes and materials: these are interventions that will work, and incentives that support innovation.

It’s time for the Government to stand up to these vested interests that would see us drown in a sea of plastic for their own financial gain. The Government must introduce measures that force packaging producers to change their behaviour and end this cycle of lies that sees consumers being blamed for every failing of industry.

This edited version of this article originally appeared on The Times' website.

It’s time for the Government to stand up to these vested interests that would see us drown in a sea of plastic for their own financial gain

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