Sustainable plastic doesn't need to be a taxing matter

By Naomi Williams

The first of a series of articles titled 'the voice of young people',  from the opinion formers of the future.  

The EU has announced a new tax targeting plastic packaging waste. As of January 2021, member states will pay £800 to the EU for every tonne of plastic packaging that ends its life as waste, without being recycled.  It will be left to the individual countries to decide how to implement the measures and collect the funds. This is in contrast to a UK proposal, to be implemented in 2022, which targets material at the beginning of it’s life. The UK’s proposal is a £200 tax on every tonne of plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled content. This is regardless of whether the plastic is bio-based, compostable, biodegradable or oxo-degradable. 

Plastic is an essential part of the consumerist society we live in. Calculations estimate that producing paper bags consumes 4 times more energy than producing plastic bags, and recycling paper consumes 85 times more energy than recycling plastic bags.  If we can effectively target recycling, and reduce waste, we can incorporate plastic packaging into a sustainable lifestyle.

There are a myriad ways to target plastic waste. We need to be certain that policies aiming to reduce packaging waste will deliver. How does the EU’s recent proposal compare to the UK’s existing proposal? Will either effectively combat plastic waste and encourage recycling? 

The UK’s proposal allows for 70% of all packaging to be made from virgin plastic, without penalty. The EU’s proposal targets all plastic that is not recycled, without exception.  The EU's stance seems stronger, but the UK's proposal should be easier to implement. It is simpler to track and collect taxes on products as they are being placed on the market, as opposed to tracking waste as it is hitting landfill sites and then tracing it back to the producers. It is unclear how this waste tracking would be efficiently implemented and the taxes allocated to the correct producer.  

The UK’s proposal makes the consequences of using virgin plastic more immediate to the producer, as the tax is levied at the beginning of the product’s lifespan rather than the end. As the charge will come into play before the product reaches the customer, it is more likely to influence consumer behaviour. As producers state their recycled plastic content, it is likely that products with higher recycled plastic content will be more attractive to the consumer. This means businesses may be more willing to include the 30% recycled plastic content, and higher, in their products as it will boost sales. 

However, I don’t think that either of these tax proposals gets to the core of the plastic packaging recycling problem. They both focus on encouraging producers to use recycled content. This is a great first step. But they don’t do anything to support the process of plastic recycling in the UK. They create demand, but Britain isn’t ready to deal with the demand. According to recent statistics, the UK recycles only 9% of it’s waste plastic domestically. Two thirds are exported.  Because of this, producers will rely on importing recycled plastic if they want to meet minimum content regulations. 

We are building a system that necessitates importing and exporting waste over thousands of miles in order to recycle, and live “sustainably”. Already the UK and other rich nations are responsible for the consumerist and environmentally damaging lifestyle that has created the problem of waste plastic. Being able to handle our rubbish domestically is surely a minimum for a developed country. I, and many others, believe there needs to be a focus on creating a circular economy at home. We must lay a suitable foundation to recycle plastic in this country, and doing so will invest in jobs and in our long term future.

A key obstacle to creating a domestic plastic reprocessing market is the volatility of the value of recycled plastic. We can overcome this by creating a more stable market for investors. Two policies which would do this are 1) introducing a market stabilisation fund that would reduce investment risks, and 2) subsidising domestic recycling companies.  

I don’t believe that importing and exporting plastic waste is a step towards sustainability.  Sustainable consumption needs to be viewed holistically if it is to be successful. The taxes are a good start, but it’s time to stop passing the buck - and the plastic - to other nations.

Published: 8 September 20

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