Category Archives: Environment

The plastics crisis: a fork in the road moment?

This article was originally published on Greenworld.

Steve Hynd, Green Councillor and Policy Manager at City to Sea, explores what the next steps are for the Government in tackling plastic pollution.

‘For fork’s sake, ban the most polluting single-use plastics NOW’. That was the message on our placards outside Downing Street as we handed in a petition with over 117,000 signatures calling on the Government to ban some of the most polluting single-use plastic items now, like plastic forks. 

After we launched this petition, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a consultation proposing a ban of single-use plastic forks, plates and polystyrene food containers. There can be no doubt this is a big step forward in our efforts to tackle plastic pollution. In response, over 51,000 City to Sea and 38 Degrees supporters responded to the Defra consultation supporting the ban, arguing that it needs to be introduced asap, not in 2023 as the Government currently plans. 

Megan Bentall, Head of Campaigns at 38 Degrees, who is used to dealing with large public outpourings of support said: “There’s no doubt about it – this is an absolutely massive show of public support for finally banning these unnecessary and polluting plastic items. 

“The fact that more than 50,000 people have taken the time to participate in a detailed government consultation on this issue is the clearest demonstration yet that we are simply done with these plastic items polluting our environment.” 

The UK: a world leader in tackling plastic pollution?

With a sympathetic government department, huge public support and a pressing environmental crisis, I am confident that we will see these most polluting single-use plastics banned. Undoubtedly a huge win. Our political leaders tell us then that this positions us as world leaders in tackling plastic pollution. 

This last point is far from the truth. The reality is that we are struggling to keep up with the very minimum standards mandated to EU member states through the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive – the same bans that Scotland has said will introduce a year before England, leaving serious questions about internal UK markets divergence. The reality is that this ban, which is being introduced with dragging feet, is the first baby step on a much longer journey. 

It’s with this in mind that I wrote a letter with Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, Chief Executive at Keep Britain Tidy and Jamie Peters, Interim Director of Campaigning Impact at Friends of the Earth to the Environment Minister, George Eustice, outlining the next steps we felt the Government needs to take if they are serious about tackling plastic pollution. 

The letter argues that the Government needs to go beyond just banning the odd item and instead set ambitious targets in the Environment Act. These, we argued must include: 

  • An at least 50 per cent reduction in non-essential single-use plastics by 2025.
  • An overarching plastics reduction target, including but not limited to single-use plastics. This would ensure a progressive reduction in the overall use of all non-essential plastics, building towards preventing plastic pollution of the environment as far as possible by 2042. This must address those harder to tackle plastics from vehicles tyres and brakes and from clothes among others, and the specific problem of microplastics.  
  • Reuse targets of at least 25 per cent of packaging being reusable by 2025, rising to 50 per cent by 2030. This would guarantee that a large proportion of the reduction in plastic pollution is met by an increase in the market share of reusables, and make sure substitutions of single-use plastics for other damaging single-use materials are avoided. 
The solutions of the future

Let’s take each of these points in turn. The first is to set a legally binding target to reduce single-use plastics by 50 per cent by 2025. Sure, the ban on the most polluting items will go some way towards this. But it is also an acknowledgement that our waste and resource systems are stretched to breaking point and we cannot just recycle our way out of this crisis. We need to reduce the amount we produce. When we are flooding the world with plastics, we can’t just need to mop the mess up – we also need to turn the taps off.  

Secondly, we called for an overarching plastics reduction target, including but not limited to single-use plastics. This acknowledges that a lot of plastic pollution does not come from plastics we can see and touch like bottles and plastic forks. Instead, microplastics and nanoplastics are shed directly from clothing and car tyres. This isn’t a small change either, the microplastics from car tyres are responsible for more than 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year. A recent study that found nanoparticles dating back to the 1960s at both poles were surprised to find a quarter of the particles were from vehicle tyres. 

This problem needs to be addressed head-on as part of our wider efforts to tackle plastic pollution. And this is why we sought reassurance and sight of the Government’s plan to tackle plastic pollution in its entirety, not just as a waste and resource question. Do they even have one? 

We, politely, pointed out that there was already one in place in the form of the Plastic Pollution Bill that is due back for its second reading on March 18. This isn’t the only way of tackling the issue, but it is a concrete and well thought out example of a legislative approach to tackling plastic pollution in its entirety. At the moment, we don’t know if the Government has an equivalent plan in place. If it doesn’t, it needs one urgently, and if it does, we urgently need to see it to feed into it and make it as good as possible. 

Lastly, we called for a reuse target of at least 25 per cent of packaging being reusable by 2025, rising to 50 per cent by 2030. We simply can’t talk about plastic pollution and a reduction in single-use plastics without talking about increasing the market share of reuse and refillable packaging. For consumers, this could be normalising refilling water bottles from public fountains, drinking coffee from reusable cups or topping up cereals from supermarket dispensers. 

Consumer demands and market movements

These are the packaging solutions of the future that we need to legislate for now. We know from our own research that there is consumer demand for this. Polling by City to Sea and Friends of the Earth to mark World Refill Day, found three out of four people (74 per cent) would like to see more refill options, for things like dried foods, laundry detergents and takeaway coffees, available to them so they can limit the amount of single-use plastic in their lives. While more than half of all people (55 per cent) think supermarkets and big-name brands are not doing enough to address plastic pollution. Crucially, 81 per cent of Brits want the UK government to make refillable products easier to buy and more widely available, as a main priority for reducing plastic pollution.

We also know there is movement in the markets towards these solutions. Coca-Cola recently announced a commitment to 25 per cent of packaging to be reusable by 2030 (something that I welcomed with healthy scepticism here). What we now need is for the Government to commit to legally binding targets to give smaller and medium-sized businesses the confidence and reassurances they need to invest in these systems. This answers not only a consumer demand, but a planetary ecological necessity.

The next six months are crucial and what we have outlined here is a pathway for the Government to take to show it is truly committed to tackling the plastic crisis (before anyone comments “what about the climate crisis?”, it’s important to remember these are two sides of the same coin). 

While some might sneer at the small steps that are being taken to tackle plastic pollution, I see them as important movement. This is a rolling start for a much bigger journey. But if Defra wants to convince us that they are serious they need to show some urgency in these first steps and to also signal that they understand the length of the journey that they are on. 

If they can show they are travelling the right path, we are there as a partner to travel with and to help carry the load. But if they fall from the tracks, we won’t hesitate in telling them where they’ve gone wrong and supporting them to get back on track.

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The government’s plan to ban single-use plastics is too little too late

This article was originally published by Left Foot Forward.

There is a flood of plastic waste entering our rivers and oceans. And we need Government, not just consumers and businesses, to help turn off the taps.

Over the last 20 years we’ve produced more plastic than in the whole of the last century. Global production has increased twentyfold since the 1960s. It is expected to double again over the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050.  We now produce over 300 million tonnes every year – up to half of which is single-use. Only 10% has ever been recycled.

This is having a devastating impact. Globally, between 8 – 12 m tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean every year and it is now estimated that more than 150 million tonnes of plastics have accumulated in the world’s oceans.

The recently announced Marine Conservation Society beach clean data starkly tells us that for every 100m of coastline we have an average of 385 pieces of litter – the vast majority of which is plastic.

It is understandable then why many, including ourselves at City to Sea, have welcomed DEFRA’s recent announcement to ban some of the most polluting single-use plastics. Having already banned straws, cotton buds and coffee stirrers, they are now consulting on banning single-use cutlery, plates and polystyrene cups. They declare that this makes them “world-leading”.

Sadly, for our planet, this is far from the truth. What they are proposing is the very bare minimum and does little to answer our concerns about their wider efforts to tackle plastic pollution.

Too late  

In 2019 the EU passed the EU Single-Use Directive which included provision to ban all of these most polluting single-use items. This came into force in July 2021. At this point we had heard nothing from government about their plans and so we launched a petition and dubbed their lack of action a “dereliction of Brexit promises”. After nearly 100,000 signed our petition DEFRA scrambled to announce that they planned to announce a consultation on banning these items.

3 months later – last week – they did finally announce a consultation. To dub this game of policy catch up as “world-leading” is frankly “world misleading”.

And this tardy approach to a very immediate environmental problem has carried on. Despite including positive and welcome measures in the consultation (such as banning harmful bioplastics) they are now not proposing to bring this ban into force until 2023. This is two years behind the rest of Europe and a year later than Scotland’s recently announced proposals.  

We’ve established that this action is too late, but it is, again sadly for our planet, also too little.

Too little

During the Environment Bill we repeatedly challenged Government with cross-party support to introduce a legally binding target to reduce plastic pollution as a whole. We wrote about why this is important for Left Foot Forward. But Government chose to reject this, asserting that they wanted a more ‘ambitions and holistic target’ that deals with all kinds of waste not just plastic.

And so we are left with a big, like an elephant in the room sized big, question. What is government’s over-arching strategy to tackling plastic pollution? Do they have a plan for example for the microplastics from car tyres that are responsible for over 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year? Do they have a plan for supermarket food wrapping plastics or for plastics flushed down our toilets causing sewage blockages and sewage overspills?

The Environment Act empowers them to use big policy leavers. They can introduce a Deposit Return Scheme, introduce a tax on single-use plastics or forcing greater consistency in recycling standards. But for us to have any confidence in these measures being suitable for the scale of the problem we face, we need Government to commit to ambitious and legally binding targets.

In 2022 they will be setting various ‘waste and resource’ targets – within that needs to be an ambitious target to reduce single-use plastics by at least 50% by 2025. Boris Johnson was right when he said  “we’ve all got to cut down our use of plastic”.

But, and this is important, they also need to explain how they plan to tackle, measure and reduce harmful microplastics that don’t even enter our waste and resource systems. A lot of plastic pollution isn’t plastics we hold in our hands on a day to day basis but it is found in the food we eat, the oceans we swim and even the air we breathe.

No-one ever said this was easy, but if government wants to be seen as ‘world leaders’ these are the policy questions they need to start answering.    

Steve Hynd is Policy Manager at City to Sea, a not-for-profit that campaigns to stop plastic pollution at source.

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From warm words to warm homes in Stroud

This article was published in Greenworld – the membership publication of the Green Party.

New research suggests that the UK’s retrofitting industry needs to grow ten-fold if the UK is to decarbonise its housing stock at a suitable pace in line with climate science. This challenge is substantial. We are missing much of the skills, supply chains, and wider infrastructure to make this happen. The Government continues to talk the talk of decarbonisation and retrofitting, but has so far failed to put significant money where its mouth is. 

For this challenge to be addressed we need central government, local government, businesses and residents working together.

Local government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kick-start efforts to tackle this by investing now in its own housing stock. And that’s exactly what Stroud District Council’s Housing Committee has proposed to do. The plan will see us investing £180m in the next 30 years to retrofit, insulate and decarbonise the Council’s five thousand homes. This is part of the Council’s ongoing commitment to address the climate emergency as part of its wider Carbon Neutral 2030 strategy

The impact of this investment will be significant. It will see a reduction in emissions of up to 24.5 per cent, with council tenants saving up to 11 per cent on fuel bills. This new investment will mean that, on average, council homes will meet Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) C ratings by 2030. 

The Stroud District Council Housing Committee’s plan, which was agreed this month, now needs full council support – if passed, the programme will be accelerated, with more money invested. It will first be targeting houses with the poorest SAP ratings, ensuring those that will benefit the most receive support first. 

For those who don’t know, Stroud District Council is run through a ‘Cooperative Alliance’ made up of 15 Labour Councillors, 13 Green Councillors and three Liberal Democrats. The Housing Committee is chaired by a widely respected long-standing Labour Councillor and the Vice-Chair is a newly elected Green Councillor, Chris Jockel. This level of investment stands as a testimony to the possibility of progressive politics in power. It also shows how a Green voice on the council over many years – Stroud District Council being one of the first councils to elect a Green Councillor – has shifted the Overton window to such a degree that now these bold measures were agreed with little disagreement, even from the Conservative opposition.

There is good climate thinking behind focusing on residential properties. They currently account for the second-largest source of carbon in the district, about 17 per cent, following road transport. However, the five thousand homes the council owns is only a drop in a heavily polluted ocean. In this sense, there is a wider question about how the council can ensure that its investment can lead as a catalyst for action from within the private sector.

This ‘early’ – in terms of market economics, not climate necessity – investment can and must act as a guarantor of a base-level of demand within the region, in order for the private sector to sure up supply chains of skills, labour and technologies. Businesses will know that it’s the Stroud District where there will be decarbonisation and retrofit work taking place. As such, the District will offer a degree of security for medium-term business planning, and, crucially, can stress test the currently shaky supply chains as heat pump demand grows

Council investment can also act as a catalyst for the training that is currently missing from the labour market. Stroud is well placed to deliver this with its highly praised Further Education (FE) college in Stroud. 

But, and this can’t be stressed enough, these policy challenges could and should be fixed through central government intervention much more efficiently. This does not mean repeating the mistakes of the disastrous Green Homes Grant that installed just 49,000 efficiency measures to date, saving a meagre 0.04 per cent of total residential sector emissions, but instead focusing on the use of large-scale financial levers to enable bodies like local authorities to invest at scale.

It shouldn’t be up to local authorities to stretch their Housing Revenue Accounts to fund these projects. The Government could, with the stroke of a pen, free up borrowing from local authorities’ general reserves linked to expected savings to allow for much bigger investments. It could also be providing more strategically directed grant funding, which we know has a dramatic effect in bolstering local jobs and skills. These are, by definition, shovel ready ideas, with local authorities like Stroud District Council pushing their finances to deliver as much as they can.

Lastly, all of this requires a public behaviour change campaign on a scale rarely seen. You can install as many heat pumps, insulation, and other energy efficiency measure as you want but if one doesn’t empower people on how to interact with them efficiently, then we are doomed for failure. In Stroud District Council, there is significant investment happening on improving council/tenant interactions, but much more needs to be done in an area traditionally characterised by poor engagement and basic service delivery. The success of the programme might well stand or fall on whether we get this piece of people-oriented work right. Only time will tell if we do or do not.

In Stroud, we are ambitious in our efforts to tackle the climate emergency and to offer residents safe, warm, and green homes to live in. We are putting as many pieces of this jigsaw together as possible. At this stage, it’s important to be open and honest about the challenges we are facing; finance, supply chains, skills, tenant engagement; and as we move forward, it’s important to also be honest about our successes, challenges and mistakes. This process will, in the medium-term, help to build confidence in the private sector, which is where we need super-sized action to occur if we are to meet the climate action targets that science dictates.

Details of the decision made by the Stroud Housing Committee can be seen on agenda item 6 on last month’s report pack to the committee.

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Why we need a legally binding target to reduce plastic pollution in the Environment Bill

plastic bottles

‘This is the government’s last chance to show real leadership ahead of COP26’

This article was first published on Left Foot Forward – please do support them. We need independent media outlets now more than ever.

For many, the defining image of plastic pollution is the one shaped through Blue Planet 2 – that of floating plastic bottles in the middle of the ocean.

It’s a heart-breaking image that has spurred much action but in truth it barely scratches at the surface of the problem. Literally. It is thought that the majority of plastic in our oceans is between 200 and 600 metres below the surface.

And while this prevailing image of floating bottles has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for incredible action, and it has spurred the development of some positive policy decisions like that of the now sadly significantly delayed Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), it has, seemingly, blinded decision makers to the wider problem of plastic pollution that is in the air around us, in the food we eat and the oceans we rely on. 

At the latest hearing of the Environment Bill at report stage, Conservative backbencher Chris Loder MP submitted an amendment that specifically would force government to set legally binding targets to reduce plastic pollution – covering the entirety of the problem. This amendment was backed by businesses, MPs, faith leaders, academics and campaigning organisations alike, including City to Sea. 

The Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow’s, response was telling. Pow’s reply was that government could not (or would not) support Loder’s amendment because they want a more ‘ambitions and holistic target’ that deals with all kinds of waste not just plastic. On the surface this seems reasonable, but like plastic pollution itself, if you scratch the surface of this logic you find a much bigger problem. 

Firstly, and crucially, by tying up efforts to tackle plastic pollution with “resource efficiency” you miss major sources of plastic pollution including most microplastics. These pollutants are not even entering our waste streams but are going directly into our natural environment. They are found in alarming numbers in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the oceans that sustain life itself.

These often do not come from conventional “waste and resource” sources like floating plastic bottles but are often shed directly into the natural environment. Think for example of the microplastics from car tyres that are responsible for over 200,000 tonnes of microplastics entering our oceans every year. Microplastic pollution may be largely invisible to the human eye, but it is profoundly felt in our natural environment and can have a potentially devastating effect – especially as it can be mistaken for food by some of our smallest ocean creatures, which are then eaten by bigger creatures as part of the food chain.  

Secondly, think of all the plastic that should, but for various reasons, doesn’t, even enter our waste streams. For example, every year water companies are spending millions on unblocking sewers that are overflowing due to plastic wet wipes and period products that have been flushed down the loo. Our riverbanks are strewn with these grim physical reminders of the plastic crisis we face. 

The government’s response and refusal to include plastic pollution in its targets section of the Environment Bill is born from either ignorance or lack of concern.  Instead of focusing on reducing the metric that really counts, plastic pollution, this government repeatedly echoes the language of the plastics industry in talking up the role of recycling. Recycling is important, but it must be seen as one of the many steps needed to reduce plastic pollution, not the end goal in of itself. 

We know, and I am sure the Minister knows, that recycling doesn’t currently work at the scale we need it to and we can’t recycle our way out of this plastic crisis. We need government to focus on what does work – and that’s to implement and enforce the waste hierarchy in all areas of policy, and to then set concrete, legally binding, targets to reduce plastic pollution in their flagship Environment Bill. 

They can still do this. The Environment Bill is due to come after the Queen’s Speech in May – this is the government’s last chance to show real leadership ahead of COP26 on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our ages. The only question left to ask is, will they? 

Steve Hynd is Policy Manager at City to Sea, a not-for-profit that campaigns to stop plastic pollution at source.

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