Why is DEFRA dragging its feet on plastics policies?

In the past fortnight or so two new reports – one from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the other from Wrap, a UK-based charity – offered a picture of the progress made by businesses on plastic packaging. There are concerns in the UK that further industry action and investment is being held up by ongoing delays to key government policies.

Action on plastics has been delayed. Photograph: Getty Images

EMF and Wrap are leading voluntary agreements - the ‘global commitment’ and ‘plastics pact’ respectively - designed to help brands strip out unnecessary plastic packaging and ensure what’s left is 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable. They must also use significantly more recycled materials in everything from pots to pouches, which dramatically reduces carbon emissions. “Industry action can prevent excess plastic reaching our supermarket shelves in the first place,” said Michael Gove, then environment secretary, when Wrap launched its pact in April 2018.

Read the latest update reports from Wrap and EMF and the message is that these agreements have begun to deliver change. The latter, for example, claimed that the use of virgin plastic has “peaked” among the signatories to its global commitment. 

Use of virgin plastic has indeed fallen for the second year running (by 1.2% in 2020 and 0.6% in 2019). What’s more, by 2025 consumption of virgin plastic is forecast to fall by 19%, against 2018 levels. That would mean avoiding eight million tonnes of plastic and “keeping 40 million barrels of oil in the ground” every year, according to EMF. However, a 1.8% reduction in two years is one thing; a 17% drop in the next four is quite another.

The other issue is that only 20% of the reduction came from removing single-use packaging. “Efforts involving more fundamental changes to packaging, products, or business models that design out the need for single-use packaging in the first place remain limited,” EMF noted. Dame Ellen MacArthur, the foundation’s founder, called the results “alarming” and wants to see “more urgent focus” on reusable packaging.

‘Could do better’ is the same drum that’s being banged year after year though. Those involved in Wrap’s programme appear to have missed a 2020 target to eliminate eight so-called ‘problematic’ or ‘unnecessary’ plastic items, including cutlery, plates and bowls, straws and straws with cartons, cotton buds, drinks stirrers, polystyrene, oxo-degradables and PVC. A footnote in the report suggests the data isn’t yet available to determine for sure but the initial results – a 42% reduction in these plastics since 2018 – suggests businesses have come up short.

Many of these items could well be banned soon anyway: Scotland has already published legislation aligning it (almost) with the EU’s single-use plastics (SUP) directive; Wales has consulted on restrictions; and England launched a consultation and call for evidence last week. These policies might not be pointless but they are hardly accelerating us towards a circular economy, according to some experts.

Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee for its inquiry on plastic waste this week, Susan Evans from Green Alliance explained how the proposed market restrictions offer a piecemeal approach that will do little to deliver an economy that uses materials more sustainably. Indeed, the impact assessments done to date suggest a “pretty much wholesale switch to alternative single-use items”, she told MPs.

Wrap’s signatories have placed 10% less plastic packaging on the market but what’s driving that is unclear. “Unfortunately we don’t have [that level of] granularity from each of the businesses,” says Helen Bird, who leads the plastics pact work. EMF does: 76% of the plastic ‘elimination’ across its members’ portfolios is due to changes in material – with paper the favourite. 

This concerns the likes of Evans, who warned that increasing reliance on such products could drive illegal deforestation. “Reduction is always going to be better than switching,” she told MPs. Paula Chin from WWF, also giving evidence, cited research from 2018 that estimated switching all UK packaging from plastic to other materials could triple associated carbon emissions. There is a “fine balance” between tackling plastic pollution and achieving net zero, she said.

This is the tightrope the government is now walking. Net zero now arguably overshadows plastic as the environmental topic politicians want to talk about. And speak to industry and there is a growing frustration that the promise of progressive policies to deal with waste – including plastic – have begun to peter out. 

More consultations are expected early in the New Year on extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging as well as consistency in waste collections. There will also be more consultation on the deposit return scheme, which has now been delayed until 2024 due to covid.

A plastics tax will however come into force in April. This places a £200 per tonne levy on producers or importers of plastic packaging if they do not include 30% recycled content. This is already helping to “re-shore” some of the plastic packaging rather than export it, according to plastic industry experts. 

Data sent by Wrap from the national packaging waste database shows 51% of the 1.2m tonnes of plastic packaging was recycled in 2020 – 41% of it in the UK; in 2018 that figure was 35%. “There has been quite a lot of investment since the plastics tax was first proposed,” Barry Turner from the British Plastics Federation told the committee. 

But he and others remain frustrated that EPR and the tax won’t be introduced at the same time.

Revenue from the plastic tax should have been diverted to help build new processing plants following delays to other policies, according to the Chartered Institution of Waste Management. 

Indeed, the longer EPR, DRS and harmonised collections take, the more worried everyone gets about having sufficient infrastructure. Wrap reckons 550,000 tonnes of new capacity is needed to meet a 70% recycling rate. The increase in domestic capacity in recent years is a “really good story” says Bird, with recycled content also up to 18% across pact signatories. 

Still, a lot of companies are waiting for clarity from government on how consistent collection, DRS and EPR are going to work. “Are we going to be able to build enough facilities quickly enough to be able to recycle all the stuff that we’re collecting?” Bird wonders.

Certainly not through tax and industry-led agreements and targets alone. Yet the government appears set on such agreements: its waste prevention programme - for which consultation responses are currently being reviewed - relies heavily on them to deliver progress not just on plastic packaging but in other sectors like textiles, food and construction. “I could have written that [document] in a fortnight in a dark room,” explains Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez. “It won’t deliver anything.”

As far as plastic packaging goes, too much is still ending up in residual waste (25%, according to DEFRA) and too little is easily and effectively recyclable (64%, according to Wrap’s latest report, which is the same as a year ago). 

That isn’t to say the voluntary programmes have been pointless. Organisations like EMF and Wrap have to tread a fine line – push too hard and engagement falls away; remain too light touch and criticism of their approach grows. “We need government policy but we don’t have to wait for it,” says Bird. Not everyone will be as patient.