Would a plastic tax help the UK become a world leader in resource efficiency?

A major talking point of yesterday's Autumn Budget was the Chancellor's decision to consult on the use of a tax for plastic packaging. But what are the realistic chances of the measure proving a success for both the environment and taxpayer?

Standing at the despatch box in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon (22 November), Chancellor Philip Hammond asserted that Britain would become a “world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic, littering our planet and our pollution”.

His solution? A consultation on how a tax system of charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastic waste created by containers such as packaging and polystyrene takeaway boxes. This move would indeed be world-leading, with no other major country yet to adopt a similar approach. 

Plastic waste is undoubtedly one of the hot topics in the sustainability agenda, thanks to heightened scrutiny from campaigners and politicians concerned about the UK’s languishing recycling rates and damaging build-up of plastic waste in oceans.

Added exposure has been driven in recent weeks through David Attenborough’s seminal BBC TV series, Blue Planet 2. The cultural phenomenon, brought to our screens every Sunday night, has catapulted ocean plastic waste into the forefront of the national consciousness and even caught the attention mainstream media outlets.

The dangers of plastic waste are now well-known: an estimated 12 million tonnes of plastic enter the marine environment each year, and residues are routinely found in fish, sea birds and marine mammals. There is no sign of the situation improving any time soon – the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns there could be more plastic [by weight] than fish in the sea by 2050.

‘Waking up’

The Chancellor’s rationale derives from the success of a similar 5p charge added to plastic bags, which has seen use fall by 85%. While at first glance a fairly blunt instrument, the plastic bag tax has been simplistically effective; easy for people to understand, the measure has helped to drive conscious choices and a change in consumer behaviour.

The initial reaction to yesterday’s plastic tax announcement was broadly positive. Members of the green community observed the potential for a tax to bring a dual environmental benefit of reducing both waste and resource use.

Mary Creagh, whose Environmental Audit Committee is currently looking into the environmental impact of waste from disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles, congratulated ministers for “finally waking up” to the growing tide of discarded waste.

Meanwhile, waste firm SUEZ’s chief executive David Palmer Jones heralded it as a “vital step towards achieving a more resource-efficient society and encouraging producers to take more responsibility”.  

All-out ban?

Support for the policy has been far from universal, however, with some outlining scepticism about the effectiveness of taxation as a way to drive change.

“It won’t deter people from buying and disposing of plastic, not en masse anyway,” SodaSteam commercial director Sumen Rannie said.

Rannie highlighted that the reason behind the success of behind the plastic bag charge was that consumers were offered a simple alternative, to reuse the bags they already have. “This won’t be so simple for containers, cutlery and wrap,” she warned.

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Her thoughts were echoed by TV personality Ben Fogle. “History tells us that you change behaviour by providing a positive alternative to the status quo, not by introducing piecemeal tax measures,” Fogle wrote in the Daily Telegraph ahead of the Budget announcement.

Both Rannie and Fogle propose the idea of an all-out ban on single-use plastics, with the latter claiming it had the potential to change attitudes in a similar fashion to the smoking ban introduced in public places exactly a decade ago.

This approach has already been pursued in other parts of the world. For instance, Karnataka in India has banned the use of plastic across the entire state. And in France, retailers and suppliers have until 2020 to rethink their single-use plastic lines for items such as cups, plates and cutlery, to ensure that anything labelled as “disposable” can be composted in a domestic setting.

Fogle suggested that a similar blanket ban in the UK could lead to plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, supported by parallel national business rate relief scheme for retailers.

Weight-based taxation

One possible benefit of taxation could be the creation of a fairer recycling system which forces companies to design more resourceful packaging. As things stand, the cost of disposal is typically shouldered by local authorities, which collect waste but have no control over product design or packaging, rather than by the supplier, retailer or user of the packaging.

According to the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA) executive Jacob Hayler, the charge will ensure eco-design is “properly rewarded and the pressure on local authorities’ budgets will be relieved”.

But some suggest that a more effective way of encouraging producers to take more responsibility would be a sophisticated mechanism that taxes suppliers based on the weight of non-recyclable plastic packaging they put into the supply chain.

“A supplier could legitimately reduce their tax bill by reducing the weight of non-recyclable packaging used, and by replacement of non-recyclable materials,” PwC’s environmental tax leader Jayne Harrold notes.

Deposit return scheme

For some materials, it could be argued that taxes are not the best approach, as Eunomia’s head of environmental policy Chris Sherrington suggests: “For single-use beverage containers, a deposit-return scheme would be the best way to significantly reduce littering, and increase recycling of bottles (and indeed cans).

“For plastic straws and stirrers, a deposit return scheme wouldn’t work, but rather than put a tax in place, it might be simpler to just ban them.”

But when it comes to a choice between a tax or a charge, Sherrington claims that the former would be preferable: “A tax would avoid the risks – that could occur with a charge – that funds disbursed by retailers displace CSR spending, and lead to undue influence over recipients, who themselves might become overly dependent upon the proceeds of the charge, potentially limiting their support for high ambition in respect of waste and litter prevention.”

Sustainable alternatives

Businesses are already investing huge amounts in processes and technology to develop alternatives to plastic packaging, and some household brands are starting to catch. British paper maker James Cropper, for instance, is now working alongside Selfridges to reprocess disposable coffee cup waste into yellow shopping bags.

James Cropper believes that manufacturing will form a significant part of the solution. But the firm stresses that improving the nation’s infrastructure for collection and recycling, and education around more sustainable alternatives, must not be ignored.

“There is still a long way to go, and it will require engagement across all levels of society,” says James Cropper’s chief executive Phil Wild.

“That said, it must be recognised that processes and technology to meet these objectives are already in place, certain brands are sitting up and taking notice of other options and consumers are demonstrating an enthusiasm to change their habits in order to leave less of an environmental footprint – and this must be celebrated.”

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George Ogleby

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