Environmental Audit Committee calls for national deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and for more of the financial burden for plastic recycling to be shifted onto industry
Sweeping changes are needed at individual, local and national levels in order to "turn back the plastic tide" of waste and help boost ailing recycling rates in the UK, according to MPs.
A major report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) today calls for the introduction of deposit return schemes across the UK, to encourage consumers to return their used plastic bottles to designated point rather than throwing them in the bin.
This, alongside requirements for all public food and drinks premises to provide free drinking water and an increase in public water fountains, would help to tackle the mountain of waste plastic bottles which end up polluting both sea and land each year, the report argues.
MPs on the Committee also called on the government to make packaging manufacturers financially responsible for the plastic packaging they produce, a move that would force firms to pay more towards the cost of disposal and recycling of their products instead of the public footing the bill.
The government should also bring in a mandated target requiring plastic bottles to be made from at least 50 per cent recycled plastic by 2023 at the latest, the report adds.
Chair of the EAC and Labour Party MP Mary Creagh called for "urgent action" to protect the environment from the "devastating" effects of marine plastic pollution, which she said at current rates would outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.
"Our throwaway society uses 13 billion plastic bottles each year, around half of which are not recycled," said Creagh. "Plastic bottles make up a third of all plastic pollution in the sea, and are a growing litter problem on UK beaches. We need action at individual, council, regional and national levels to turn back the plastic tide."
The UN recently declared ocean plastic pollution a "planetary crisis" and the issue has been brought to wider public attention of late with the help of BBC's Blue Planet II series, which saw Sir David Attenborough warn of the dangers of ocean plastics and climate change in the final episode of the series.
Earlier this week Environment Secretary Michael Gove said he was "haunted" by images of the damage done to the world's oceans in the BBC documentary series, and he is understood to be considering some form of refundable deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles, among other measures hinted at in the Budget, with more detail expected in the new year. Legislation will also come into force in January banning the sale of products using plastic microbeads in the UK.
But today's EAC report states that plastic bottles in particular are an "easily avoidable source of marine plastic pollution" and demands the government takes rapid action to tackle the problem.
More ambitious households recycling targets and a deposit return scheme (DRS), it argues - such as that planned in Scotland - would help capture the estimated 700,000 plastic bottles littered or landfilled each year in the UK, as well as boosting stalling domestic recycling rates. The latest recycling figures from Defra released earlier this month show England has been stuck at an average recycling rate of around 44-45 per cent for five years now, with growing fears the UK as a whole may struggle to meet statutory EU targets for 2020. Meanwhile, the EU earlier this week provisionally agreed to a new household waste recycling target of 65 per cent by 2035 for Member States.
The report claims DRSs - either mandatory or voluntary - could help boost the current recycling rate for plastics alone from 57 per cent to around 80-90 per cent, and calls for Defra's upcoming Waste Strategy to also consider introducing such schemes for other packaging materials such as aluminium cans.
Beverage giant Coca-Cola European Partners has said it supports "well designed" DRSs to boost plastic bottle recycling, but the wider packaging sector has faced criticism for taking a more negative stance over fears such schemes could heap too much cost onto packaging manufacturers. Packaging research body INCPEN has previously said that even the most well-crafted DSR in the world would not in itself enable the UK to achieve its longer term recycling and littering targets, but was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press today.
However, according to Creagh the introduction of a small charge of around 10-20 pence to encourage the return of plastic bottles "will result in less littering, more recycling and reduction in the impact of plastic packaging on our natural environment".
The report is the result of an inquiry launched in September by the Committee into disposable plastic packaging - particularly coffee cups and plastic bottles - and its findings suggest packaging producers at present only pay for around 10 per cent of the cost of packaging disposal and recycling, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the remaining 90 per cent of costs.
Moreover, complex plastic and film wrappings frequently used in packaging can contaminate the recycling stream, further reducing resale value of the material, the Committee said.
Today's EAC report therefore recommends the UK adopt a producer responsibility compliance fee structure that rewards design for recyclability and raises charges on packaging that is difficult to recycle, as well as setting a 50 per cent recycled content target for plastic bottles.
"Packaging producers don't currently have to bear the full financial burden of recycling their packaging," said Creagh. "By reforming producer responsibility charges, the government can ensure that producers and retailers will have financial incentives to design packaging that is easily recyclable, or face higher compliance costs."
The Local Government Association (LGA) - which represents more than 350 councils in England and Wales - welcomed the "constructive" recommendations in the EAC report, but stressed that local authorities should be given financial backing for introducing DRSs.
"If councils are to be given the responsibilities to facilitate such a service, it must be matched in funding and resources so that councils are able to successfully implement it," said LGA environment spokesman and Buckinghamshire county councillor Martin Tett. "What we need is packaging that is easily recyclable - this would not only make waste disposal easier for our residents, but save considerable amounts of money and energy, whilst protecting our environment."
The government is expected to provide a full response to EAC's report in due course, but a spokesman for Defra highlighted its work on driving down single-use plastic bag use and banning microbeads in the UK as examples of its commitment to tackling plastic pollution.
With plastic pollution having hit the headlines, the EAC's report and recommendations on deposit schemes are timely and likely to gain significant political traction. Indeed, Defra has already set up an independent working group to better understand the benefits of such schemes for plastic bottles and other drinks containers in England, and is due to provide advice on the issue to ministers in early 2018.
The EAC's call for more of the financial burden of plastic recycling to be shifted onto packaging manufacturers may prove more controversial. But drastically cutting down on the millions of tonnes of plastic waste entering the world's oceans every year may well require some controversial ideas.
One thing is sure, the problem of plastic waste will still be floating high on the agenda at Defra well into the new year.
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