Theresa May has announced government intentions to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, describing plastic waste as ‘one of the great environmental scourges of our time.’ There are few that would dispute the statement – but what will this 25-year goal mean in practice?
Having urged supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles, supermarket giant Iceland has recently pledged to banish plastic from its own-brand products within the next five years following a poll that revealed 80% of customers would endorse the move. Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, has said that ‘the onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging pollution and waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change.’ The move is hoped to prompt other retailers and food producers to rise to meet these new challenging standards.
In addition to this, many companies notably including Coca Cola and Iceland have supported the suggestion of a deposit-return system, where shoppers would pay a small surcharge which would be refunded when the customer returned the bottle. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has also expressed an interest in introducing this nationwide: countries such as Germany and Denmark, which already have deposit-return schemes in place, recycle more than 90% of glass and plastic bottles, compared to 57% in the UK. Although local authorities are concerned about losing money, as residents may use deposit schemes rather than recycling, The Guardian claims that this scheme could save England’s councils £35million in recycling costs annually.
The government has also revealed plans to extent the plastic bag charge – which has meant that nine billion fewer plastic bags are used each year across the UK – to all high street shops, including independents. New taxes are also being considered for takeaway food packaging, notably disposable coffee cups which are currently non-recyclable. The meeting on 11th January saw ministers emerging with new reusable coffee cups to use in place.
However, the word ‘avoidable’ in May’s claim sheds doubt on the extent of her proclaimed convictions by implying that some plastic waste is simply unavoidable and thus will remain in circulation. Sue Hayman, shadow environment secretary, has labelled the move ‘years behind schedule’, and ‘a cynical attempt at rebranding the Tories’ image.’
Recent polling has suggested that environmental concerns were influential in causing younger generations of voters to back the Labour party rather than the Conservatives in the general election (Bright Blue) – the extent to which May’s 25-year plan comes from a political standpoint rather than a place of genuine concern for the planet is indefinite, particularly when the Conservatives’ weak record of environmental action is taken into consideration.
Greenpeace UK's executive director John Sauven argues that ‘Britain's natural environment needs a 25-month emergency plan more than it needs a 25-year vision,’ emphasising the vague nature of May’s proposals. If the aims set out in her speech are to be achieved, legal force will be needed to carry through the objectives.
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