tYears after the government banned the use of plastic straws, cotton buds and microbeads in some beauty products in England, Therese Coffey decided to set to Ban single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups. This means that perhaps 1.1 billion plates and 4.25 billion pieces of cutlery would not be made in England each year.
It sounds impressive, as if the Minister of the Environment is trumping at plastics that are only used once but last for centuries, breaking down into countless smithereens and polluting rivers and seas in the process. But the new ban barely scratches the surface of a decades-old problem that is now out of control.
Not only has Coffey been embarrassed by action by the Scottish and Welsh governments, which acted last year on plastic waste, but the English ban appears vaguely to only apply to plastic used in takeaway outlets and not in supermarkets or convenience stores.
There are few pollutants more insidious – or more urgent to deal with – than plastic. Microplastics extend from ocean trenches to mountain peaks. Plastic is found in human bodies and in the food we eat It literally rains on people and animals. But the ban is very narrow in scope. It doesn’t cover single-use plastic water bottles, doesn’t mention plastic bags and doesn’t even try to control the burning of plastic waste in incinerators. There is still no scheme for refunding deposits for beverage containers and no crackdown on exporting plastic waste to poor countries.
“A plastic fork can take 200 years to decompose,” Coffey said when announcing the ban. However, by the time the new law is passed, it will have taken about 18 months of consultation, several environmental trustees and enormous public pressure just to make this minimal progress. At this rate, it would take more than 200 years to stop plastic pollution completely.
It is clear that the government has little intention of acting comprehensively anytime soon. There is no financial incentive for catering or fast food companies to ditch single-use plastic and nothing to encourage the food industry or households to recycle more. Local authorities should not be assisted in any way in cleaning up plastic on beaches or roadsides. There will be no restrictions on the production of single-use plastics, only for some items that are not well defined in selected places. It appears that the legislation will be full of loopholes.
Quite simply, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, plagued by allegations of inaction and delay by sewage being pumped into English waterways and battered by slow and poor air pollution targets, has been politically embarrassed enough to introduce minimal legislation that would give the impression of action. . Undermined by an ideological commitment to letting big industries do as they please, it opted for fast-food outlets, many of which served cheap food, plastic waste framed as rubbish made by the public. The real problem is that plastics are produced by a very powerful global petrochemical industry that produces the materials needed to make the world’s plastics.
Plastic has been on an unstoppable roll for the last 70 years. Unrestrained by governments, the petrochemical industry is weathering the global recession and building huge new plastic plants, like a giant new factory. Shell plant In Pennsylvania, to create profitable new markets for the population in industrialized countries. Today’s fossil fuel industry relies on plastic profits to offset expected future losses from the transition to renewable energy.
The scale of plastic pollution, especially in the marine environment, is now huge, although it is well known to governments. Almost half of the plastic is used for single-use items, of which 40% is for packaging. However, less than 10% is recycled. The shocking truth is that almost every piece of plastic is still there in some shape or form, except for the small amount that was burned off.
Britain took global leadership when it passed the Climate Change Act in 2008. It set up a powerful independent advisory committee and committed itself to a net zero strategy. She now has the opportunity to lead the United Nations’ negotiations to pass the first global plastic pollution treaty, ultimately aiming to cut plastic production by half.
But you should not wait for a UN consensus, which is very slow to achieve and will inevitably face stiff opposition from the fossil fuel lobby. Can take a moral high ground and lead by example. It would cost the public exchequer nothing to rein in the plastics industry, restore confidence in the ability of governments to tackle these pressing problems, and prevent Britain from appearing to be an environmental defaulter.