Green campaigners are keen for ministers to extend upon the proposed ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds to reduce the UK’s mounting plastic waste crisis.

Responding to a question from edie at the Theos annual lecture on Thursday (22 November), Gove said further proposals would likely be set out in the Resources and Waste Strategy, due to be published before Christmas.

The Defra Secretary said: “I don’t want to pre-empt what we are going to say, but it is certainly the case that we are contemplating restrictions on more single-use plastics, and we are also contemplating what it is that we can do to work – rather than mandating quite in that way – with industry.”

‘Right incentives, right direction’

Frustrations have grown about the levels of single-used plastic packaging used by leading supermarkets for perishable food products, seen by campaigners as an unnecessary form of waste. The likes of Lidl and Iceland have moved to provide plastic-free packaging for their fruit and vegetable ranges, but research from Greenpeace earlier this month revealed that practically all high-street giants are still moving far too slow to rid their shelves of throwaway plastic.

Gove said that Defra was working closely with supermarket chains through the Council for Sustainable Business, which advises Defra on how companies can help to achieve the aims of the 25-Year Environment Plan, including the wipe out of all “avoidable plastic” waste by 2042.

Council members such as Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, have shown “great leadership” in this area, Gove said, but he admitted that more retailers must step up their efforts.  

“There are some businesses that can do significantly more, but we believe the right level of regulation and incentives can change behaviour,” Gove added. “In the conversations I’ve had with Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Iceland, Morrisons and others, they have been clear about the direction of travel and about the right level of regulation that can move them in the right direction.”

With any future ban on single-use plastics, the Government will hope for similar levels of success of the 5p plastic bag levy, which has reduced usage in the “big seven” British supermarkets by 86% since 2015. That charge is set to be doubled to 10p and will also affect smaller retailers.

Labour of Gove

The so-called ‘war on plastic waste’ has been one of several unlikely wins for Gove under his tenure as Defra Secretary. Concerns were raised that this progress could be undone last week when it was reported Gove was set to leave the Department last week amid Theresa May’s Brexit-fuelled cabinet reshuffle.

Gove told audience members at the Theos annual lecture that he was “very glad” that he stayed on in his current role in favour of the Brexit Secretary job. Asked how committed he remained as Environment Secretary, Gove said he would carry on “for as long as I can be useful” to the Department.

He said: “There are other people in Parliament and Government who I believe could do this job easily as well, if not even better than me… so nobody is indispensable – certainly not me. But I want to carry on doing it for as long as I can be useful and do the right thing.

“It is hard to predict anything in politics.. but I want to carry on and carry through some of the changes we are making. Despite what everybody thinks of Brexit, it does provide us an opportunity in farming, fisheries and the environment to make beneficial changes.”

George Ogleby

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