As the world faces a growing plastics crisis, we look at whether or not we need stronger laws around the production, use and disposal of plastic in our lives…
All too often when it comes to plastic pollution, the problems – and the solutions – are laid squarely on individuals.
People are the ones who litter, we are told. People on-the-go are the ones who crave their soft drinks or water in plastic bottles or their coffee in plastic-lined coffee cups. It’s the forgetful people who need the plastic carrier bags because they’ve left their bags for life back at home.
And while individuals can and should do all they can to reduce the plastic in their lives and dispose of it as effectively as possible, the truth is that plastic pollution is a global problem with widespread impacts. And individual action is only going to get us so far.
As Al Gore said about another global issue:
‘We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis. Our policies have to shift.’
We need concerted action from individuals, businesses and governments if we are going to finally turn off the plastic tap and tackle the issue of plastic pollution.
Why do we need legislation at all?
Businesses often resist legislation and regulations, fearing that government red tape will stifle innovation, competition and the ability of businesses to move fast and make money. There has been the belief that the market, left to its own devices, will regulate itself and clean up its own messes.
Unfortunately, it’s not always true.
Shareholder capitalism, as preached by Milton Friedman, is laser-focused on quarterly earnings statements and the bottom line. Unfortunately, this can lead to them prioritising profit over people and planet. An example of this is that 90% of recycling costs in the UK are covered by the taxpayer whilst businesses pay just 10%.
It’s in those scenarios where we need government to step in and be the grown-ups in the room to ensure that the market is doing what’s right for the long term.
How has legislation helped in the past?
Governments around the world have passed legislation and regulations to ensure that the air we breathe and the water we drink is clean and safe. Legislation can protect our countryside and wild spaces as well as the plants and animals that live there. In society, legislation can protect listed buildings and monuments, make our homes and products more energy efficient and ensure safe working environments.
Governments use these legal frameworks, taxes and levies to set out new standards, restrict activities or reward behavioural change and level the playing field to allow for new entrants in the marketplace.
What legislation exists today?
In 2015, the law changed to require large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags with the aim of reducing their use and encouraging people to bring a reusable bag instead. While it’s hasn’t been a perfect solution, data shows that the number of single-use plastic bags sold is 86% lower than in 2014.
A ban on the sale of products containing microbeads – tiny pieces of plastic added to personal care items like face scrubs, soap, toothpaste and shower gels – went into force in June 2018.
Earlier this year the government passed the Environmental Protection Regulations which will ban plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers from July 2021.
And coming into effect in April 2022, ‘plastic packaging produced in, or imported into the UK, which does not contain at least 30 per cent recycled plastic, will be subject to a levy of £200 a tonne’.
Do we need stronger laws?
While the laws mentioned above are a start, they don’t go far enough, fast enough.
We need stricter regulations on the plastic industry and the businesses manufacturing, distributing and disposing of plastics. An Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which would shift the costs of cleaning up plastic pollution to the companies that make the products.
In the meantime, businesses can be part of the solution by joining the UK Plastics Pact, an initiative with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WRAP as they seek to create a circular economy for plastics.