Comparing the European Commission’s strategy on plastics and the sub-chapter exploring plastics in the UK’s 25 year environmental plan is akin to examining the differences between a tightly sealed plastic bag and a plastic bag with a small puncture in it: they look entirely alike, yet only the former is air-tight.
The UK proposes to work towards the goal of achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 through a four-point circular plan, focusing on:
- End of use stage
- End of life/waste management stage
The European Commission’s strategy also touts the benefits of a circular approach, to:
- Improve the economics and quality of plastics recycling
- Curb plastic waste and littering
- Driving innovation and investment towards circular solutions
- Harnessing global action
This will ensure that:
- All plastics packaging placed on the EU market is either reusable or can be recycled in a cost-effective manner by 2030
- More than half of plastics waste generated in Europe is recycled by 2030. Separate collection of plastics waste will reach very high levels. Recycling of plastics packaging waste will achieve levels comparable with those of other packaging materials.
- By 2030, sorting and recycling capacity will increase fourfold since 2015, leading to the creation of 200,000 new jobs, spread all across Europe
The UK’s circular approach is seemingly identical to the European Commission’s. But there are differences in the level of detail and commitment. The UK promises to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. The term ‘avoidable’ is left loosely defined; meaning, “what is technically, environmentally and economically practicable”, according to the document.
Presumably, this definition can allow the government to claim it has ‘achieved its goal’ regardless of how the plan works in practice. The ‘economically practicable’ term is particularly worrisome, as it is a term which could be applied in a multitude of ways. Stated reforms include reforming packaging waste regulations and extending producer responsibility requirements to plastic products not currently covered by existing regimes.
Yet if producers claim these regulations will not be economically viable, government could renege on its promise, citing issues with ‘economic practicability.’ To add to the imprecision, the document fails to state what new packaging waste regulations might look like, or what types/how many plastic products producer responsibility requirements will be extended to.
Similar approaches aside, the Commission’s plastics strategy is more specific and ambitious. Deadlines are more urgent (2030 as opposed to 2042). Regulations are clear. Numeric targets are given. The UK mainly builds off of policies which are already working (e.g. ‘continuing to implement the Litter Strategy’), without specifically stating how they can be made better or what weak spots need improvement.
There are some clearly defined proposals, such as the extension of the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers and the proposed establishment of free water refill points. But in comparison to the European Commission’s strategy, the UK plastics plan comes across as trite, unspecific, and frankly, insecure.
As the UK will leave the EU in 2019, there is impetus for the UK to metamorphose into a new global leader with a clear strategic vision. Soft power will determine how favorably the global community views a post-Brexit UK. The country’s current plan to address plastic waste lacks the chutzpah, innovation and air-tight policies needed to achieve this power.
Roz KennyBirch is a Communications Officer at Local Partnerships, and lives in London.