Plastic pollution; how Britain now trails Europe after ‘Green Brexit’ failure

This article was originally published as an opinion piece for The Yorkshire Post.

Is Britain’s ‘Green Brexit’ falling at the first hurdle? 

Back in 2018 Michael Gove gave a speech declaring “a new era” for our environment. In that speech he categorically said, “we’re planning to go further in dealing with the pollution caused by single use plastics”. Two years on and these promises are starting to ring a little hollow, as the government drags its feet towards the very first hurdle along the route to stop plastic pollution, scratching their heads and idly discussing whether or not they’re going to need a stepladder to get over it.

From July 2021, bans on single-use plastic cutlery, plates, polystyrene trays and other food packaging are coming into force across Europe as part of the EU’s Single-use Plastics Directive. The ban was agreed by the UK when we were part of the EU. It was intended to tackle the most polluting single-use plastics that were also the easiest to replace or do without. In other words, these restrictions are the absolute minimum that the EU expects member states to achieve.

Two years after the ban passed through the EU Institutions, England has yet to even launch a consultation asking if some of these items should be banned – the first step in the legislative process. This stands in marked contrast to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who have both consulted on a full ban on all of these most polluting items. England is falling behind not just the rest of the EU, but also the other nations within the UK. 

This is why over 20 organisations have written to this government, asking them to take this most basic of steps.

Whilst it is the easy, logical first step in a longer process, it is still a significant move. Packaging from take-away food and drinks is a huge cause of plastic pollution and items like plastic cutlery and take-away containers are consistently in the top ten most polluting items found on beaches around the world. Indeed, new research has revealed that plastic food containers and food wrappers are two of the four most widespread items polluting our oceans, rivers and beaches. 

We also know that a full ban on these items would be popular. At the time of writing a petition by City to Sea and Greenpeace calling for this is just short of 100,000 signatures, days after being launched, and polling consistently shows that plastic pollution is one of the UK public’s biggest environmental concerns.

In response, the government will claim to be a ‘global leader’, pointing to their ban of (some) microbeads, plastic straws, coffee stirrers and cotton buds. But we’re falling behind all of our neighbours in dealing with this problem, and we’re still Europe’s biggest plastic pollution producer. 

A genuinely world leading approach to tackling plastic pollution would be one of the following. Either rapidly adopt the EU measures, and then use the UK’s influential position in this year’s international environmental talks to try to get as many other nations as possible to adopt them as a minimum international standard. Or alternatively, implement fully comprehensive, legally binding limits to plastic pollution to their flagship Environment Bill, showing real leadership and providing a more ambitious model for other nations to follow.

Instead, our government is charting its own course, dipping below international minimum standards at times, while also failing to demonstrate a vision for the way forward. What we have is a government that echoes the language of the plastics industry, talking up the importance of recycling while ignoring the ever growing mountain of plastic that will never be recycled and ends up incinerated, in landfill or exported, damaging other countries’ environments and the health of their people. 

If this government was serious about tackling plastic pollution it could and should immediately look to fully transpose the EU’s Single-Use Plastic Directive into UK law and  lobby for these minimum standards to be adopted internationally. At the same time it could and should be working to introduce legally binding targets to reduce plastic production as part of the Environment Bill. Two UK supermarkets have already pledged to halve their plastic packaging by 2025. The hurdles are all clearable, we just need to aim that little bit higher.

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