As calls for a green recovery from covid-19 grow, it is important that measures to reduce waste and build a reusable, refillable society are prioritised. This could reduce environmental harm, create jobs and create a world leading circular economy.
Before covid-19, plastic pollution was a priority concern amongst the public as a result of the Blue Planet effect and the excellent campaigning of many Link member organisations. Government is now on the cusp of introducing some transformational policies that would reduce plastic pollution both in England and across the UK. With lockdown restrictions due to ease, we must now ensure this potential progress is not undermined by short term measures responding to misleading narratives.
This has happened in the USA, where in part due to industry spin, states have delayed planned bans on single use plastic bags and others have gone as far as banning reusable bags altogether. All because of the myth that reusable plastic bags are more likely to be a vector for the virus. There is no evidence to support this falsehood. The opposite in fact as research has shown the virus can remain on plastic longer than other materials such as cloth or wood.
In the UK, the charge on single use plastic bags has been lifted for supermarket home deliveries to facilitate contactless drop off. Who knows how long this charge may be lifted for, and where this then leaves the proposed plastic bag charge extension which was consulted on two years ago.
Supermarkets have also seen an increase in sales of plastic wrapped food and Government is proposing restaurants and pubs use single use sachets instead of refillable bottles and that stores refuse reusable cups. This is despite Government’s own advice that the risk of spreading the virus via food or food packaging is very low anyway.
In April, Government delayed the ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, which was publicly opposed by Phillip Dunne, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. This delay came despite affected organisations having ample time to prepare, many already being closed due to the lockdown and the idea they needed to source alternatives a falsity anyway as most people do not need single use straws or stirrers of any materials.
This is low hanging fruit in the plastic pollution crises, but it was long fought progress and without some of those policies we’re only producing more plastic waste, which even pre-covid-19 we were struggling to process. From January to March alone the UK exported over 13,000 tonnes of plastic waste to Malaysia which has contributed to widespread environmental contamination. Now it looks like policies aiming to further reduce plastic pollution, such as the Deposit Return and Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, could also be delayed by another year.
Instead of reverting to the status quo and introducing harmful short term measures we should use this time to redesign our systems so we don’t have these issues in the future.
Reusable and refillable models with short supply chains and industrial cleaning could ensure greater hygiene than single use alternatives where products can be touched by several people before reaching the consumer. Recognising this potential, Government, businesses and NGOs should capitilise on the momentum forming behind sustainable packaging schemes pre covid-19 to accelerate some of the great initiatives. For example, Loop offers reusable, washable and refillable packaging options from many of our most common brands which could also alleviate pressure on supermarket delivery services. Cup Club also offers a solution to single-use cup waste, offering an easy, safe way for reusable cups to be used and returned safely.
The Government should also prioritise policies that free up funds for cash strapped Local Authorities and boost public finances more generally. If implemented effectively, the Extended Producer Responsibility and Deposit Return schemes will help shift the cost of cleaning up our plastic pollution from the taxpayer to the producer.
With many Link members reporting an increase in litter at their sites and beaches increasingly being strewn with rubbish, we simply cannot delay progress any longer. Instead, the Government must take this as an opportunity to build back better and create a reusable, refillable society that eliminates single-use materials and helps tackle both the climate and biodiversity crises.
Cecily Spelling, Marine Policy & Campaigns Manager, Wildlife & Countryside Link
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
Latest Blog Posts