Imagine living in a world where we don’t have to worry about recycling, because there is no waste to recycle in the first place. It would be a far healthier, happier place to live – but is it a realistic possibility? In the UK, the government has an ambition of achieving zero avoidable waste by 2050. Here, GreenSeas Trust is asking the question: is the government doing enough? And how does the UK compare to other countries around the world in pioneering plastic waste policy? We’ll be comparing UK policy to that of five other countries, all of which are taking a tough approach to beating plastic waste. Let’s see how the UK compares when policies are put under scrutiny.
Plastic Waste Reduction Commitments Around the World
As part of the 25-year environment plan, these are the UK’s government’s key plans:
- An ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050
- A target of eliminating voidable plastic waste by the end of 2042
Key actions and policies:
- A new tax will apply to plastic packaging that is manufactured in, or imported into, the UK, if it doesn’t contain at least 30% recycled plastic. This will be effective from April 2022.
- The fee for plastic bags has been put up to 10p as of April 2021 and small retailers will no longer be exempt.
- Microbeads were banned in 2017.
- Some single-use plastics were banned in October 2020: cotton buds, plastic straws and drinks stirrers.
Action is happening, but there’s no getting away from the fact that 2050 is a long way off. Plus, the UK government is setting ambitions and targets, not enforcing bans. The UK simply isn’t going far enough in cracking down on plastic waste.
How does this compare to other countries around the world, especially those that are leading the way in reducing single-use plastics?
Canada plans to ban all single-use plastics as early as 2021 and achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.
Key actions and policies:
- Microbeads were also banned in 2017 – the same year as the UK.
- The government has pledged $20 million dollars to support the G7 Innovation Challenge, addressing marine plastic litter. This will provide the incentive to develop innovative social and technological solutions for more sustainable management of plastics throughout their lifecycle.
Canada has taken one of the toughest stances on plastic waste. However, this is in the context of Canada throwing away around 3.3 million tonnes of plastic a year, only 9% of which is recycled. This will be an interesting set of commitments to monitor and we wish Canada luck – it is promising to see aggressive target setting where it matters the most.
Norway is mainly known for its incredible recycling scheme. This has achieved:
- Up to 97% recycling of plastic bottles, thanks to a nationwide deposit scheme
- An environmental tax on plastic producers; the more plastic they recycle, the lower the tax
Norway is leading the world in its approach to plastic recycling. In the UK, an average of 16 million plastic bottles a day don’t get recycled.
The Norwegian Environment Agency also recommends banning many disposable plastic products in 2021, which would take effect in July. This would involve plastic cutlery, plates, straws, mixing sticks, balloon sticks, cotton swabs and takeaway food containers made of Styrofoam. While Norway may be ahead of the game in recycling, other countries are further ahead in enforcing plastic bans. But using their model of a deposit recycling scheme to get people recycling also seems like an obvious option which would have many benefits for the UK.
Peru makes for an interesting case study. In 2018, it was estimated that 16% of all waste was not manage appropriately, ending up in the environment, especially rivers and oceans. Only 17.7% of waste was recycled. However, Peru hit headlines for two key plastic reduction initiatives:
- In December 2018, a law was passed to reduce single-use plastics. The legislation regulates various disposable items, including plastics bags, straws and containers, as well as banning single-use plastics in vulnerable environments, such as beaches and protected areas.
- In 2019, Peru became the first country to implement PepsiCo’s Recycling With Purpose circular economy model. The company says it must work with grassroots recyclers to help with integration into municipal waste management systems. The program is also expected to benefit 800,000 people at community level by creating better recycling services.
Germany has been dubbed a hub for recycling plastic from all over Europe – 1 billion PET bottles are recycled a year at a plant in Rostock. The country also has a highly-praised deposit return scheme, with reverse vending machines available in many supermarkets. In 2021, Germany will align with an EU directive intended to reduce plastic waste, which will see bans on single-use plastic products like straws, cutlery, cotton buds and food containers.
In 2018, Germany’s Environment Ministry unveiled its five-point plan to reduce plastic waste by:
- Avoiding unnecessary products and packaging
- Making packaging and other products more environmentally friendly
- Recycling more
- Preventing plastic getting into organic waste
- Limiting plastic waste at sea through international efforts
Despite being seen as a global leader in recycling, Germany is banning single-use plastic later than other countries. It also exports more plastic waste than any other country in the EU, and produces record amounts of packaging waste (of which plastic waste is a problematic element).
Will Brexit Affect Rules on Plastic Waste?
It is not yet completely clear exactly how Brexit will affect UK policy when it comes to plastic waste. However, one divergence has already come to light: from 01 January 2021, EU rules banned the export of plastic waste to non-Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries (with the exception of some ‘clean’ plastic for recycling). However, unlike the EU, the UK chose to enact a new system of prior informed consent. This means that unsorted plastic waste can still be sent to non-OECD countries, further compounding the plastic problem globally.
So Is the UK Government Doing Enough to Tackle the Single-Use Plastic Problem?
In short, if we are truly committed to significantly cutting the amount of single-use plastic in circulation, there is a long way to go.
Let’s not leave it up to the government – it’s up to each and every one of us to take a stand against plastic pollution. Only then can we start to make some headway and ensure we protect our planet and oceans for future generations, and for all of the animal life they support. At GreenSeas Trust, we believe in promoting behavioural change so that people think differently about plastic waste and can see the bigger picture. Think about your own actions, read about our BinForGreenSeas, then go and tell someone else all about it too. One small action or conversation could spark many more actions and lead to change on a far greater scale. We all owe it to the planet to try our very best – let’s not leave it up to the government. 2050 simply isn’t soon enough.