In the last 25 years, attitudes towards waste and recycling have undergone a seismic shift. It’s no longer just an issue of concern among environmental groups, but now sits deep in the consciousness of the wider society.
As awareness around rubbish disposal grows and the consequences for the world’s ecosystems are exposed, individuals, local authorities and industry have dramatically stepped up their efforts to recycle.
It was a pivotal moment in December 2017 that ignited the UK’s war on plastic pollution. The premiere of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II gave a stark portrayal of what plastic waste is doing to the marine ecosystem, catapulting the issue into the mainstream media agenda.
A month later, the UK government announced a comprehensive plan to tackle the country’s plastic problem.
The UK Plastics Pact was launched by the Waste and Resources Action Programme with a goal to meet a series of key targets by 2025.
Backed by 40 major companies, the pact targeted 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, with single-use packaging eliminated.
In October of last year, the UK government moved a step closer to reaching these goals by banning plastic straws, drinks stirrers, and plastic stemmed cotton buds in England.
Before the ban it’s estimated the nation would use 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers, and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds every year, so it was a major step in the right direction.
But COVID-19 has sadly shifted the trend the other way.
The demand for PPE has seen a significant increase in our production of single-use plastics (SUPs). The majority of PPE being used to protect health workers – such as gloves, face masks and gowns – is often used once and then thrown away.
Changes in lifestyle have had an impact too. The rise in e-commerce during lockdowns has increased plastic packaging. Our reliance on takeaways has gone up, while more restaurants have started delivery services. Again, increasing the use of plastic containers.
The extent of the damage is still to be measured, but a report from Greenpeace shows the UK still has a long way to go in its fight against plastic pollution.
The report claims the UK generates more plastic waste per person than any other country apart from the US. And what’s more concerning is that 40% of that plastic, or 210,000 tonnes, is exported to Turkey.
Not all of it is recycled either. Because of the backlog at recycling plants in Turkey a lot of it is illegally dumped and burned.
Senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, Nina Schrank, said the underlying problem was overproduction. She’s challenged the government to ban plastic waste exports and reduce single-use plastic by 50% by 2025.
The government is working on recycling reforms as part of the Environment Bill to force manufacturers to take more responsibility for the packaging they use and encourage consumers to recycle more.
That includes a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers that gives incentives to people who return bottles to retailers.
An ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ for packaging – a UK-wide scheme where manufacturers will have to pay the full costs of managing and recycling their packaging waste. Those businesses who produce packaging that’s harder to recycle will pay higher fees.
And lastly, a consistent recycling collection for all households and businesses in England.
Environment Secretary George Eustice had this to say on the reforms: ‘These new changes will further ensure that more of what we consume is recycled and reused. They will stimulate the creation of alternatives to single-use plastics and establish consistent rules to help people recycle more easily across the country.’
In some cases, COVID-19 has been a catalyst for rapid change. We only have to look at how quickly businesses have adapted to remote working. But for the UK’s war against plastic, the pandemic looks to have undone a lot of the good work already achieved. However, with legislation in the works and the can do attitude that COVID-19 has inspired – now is the time to get back on track.
Published date: 22nd July 2021
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