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Blog / A single-use plastic sea change?


24 April 2019

With Netflix’s recent release of Our Planet and last year’s Blue Planet II, the so-called Attenborough effect has pushed the global plastic pollution problem to the forefront of the public consciousness. With plastic consumption predicted to double in the United Kingdom over the next 20 years and an estimated 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste expected to make its way to landfill or into the natural environment by 2050, drastic measures are required.

Multinational companies are slowly starting to react to the call for change; last week Guinness announced that it will stop using plastic in its multipacks. This follows in the footsteps of brands such as McDonald’s, which stated that it would be replacing its plastic straws with paper ones in the United Kingdom in 2019.

As Dentons highlighted on Lexology last week, the power of civil society to catalyse change when it comes to the environment is strong. This was a particularly timely article and was released as key roads and bridges became occupied by the Extinction Rebellion environmental protestors. So what legislative progress has actually been made in an attempt to stop the plastic pollution that is plaguing our planet?

As CMS has been reporting, in October 2018 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of the European Commission’s proposal for a directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. Following amendments in January this year, the directive has been approved and is due to come into force once it is published in the Official Journal. The directive implements a variety of measures, including a prohibition on marketing certain single-use plastic products, mandatory recycling targets and specific consumption reduction targets. This fits into the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, which aims to ensure that all plastic packaging on the EU market is either reusable or recyclable in a cost-efficient manner by 2030.

In an attempt to ride the wave of rising public pressure to take action to tackle the global plastic problem, the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO’s) Marine Environment Protection Committee recently adopted a targeted action plan. As Lane Powell has detailed, the plan is due to be completed in 2025 and will be imposed on all ships, including fishing vessels. The action plan aims to reduce the contribution to marine plastic litter by the shipping trade, enhance public awareness, improve port facilities for litter disposal and enhance international cooperation to work towards preserving the marine environment. The IMO action plan can be found on the organisation’s website.

In Spring 2018 signatories from the 42 businesses that are collectively responsible for 80% of the plastic packaging in UK supermarkets signed the UK Plastics Pact, which targets the use of single-use plastics. As Walker Morris has argued, such developments have occurred as a result of public awareness and show that progress can be made towards a more circular plastic economy. In February 2019 the UK government launched a consultation on the possibility of introducing a new plastic packaging tax. The proposed tax would be introduced in April 2022 and apply to businesses that produce and import plastic packaging which contains less than 30% recycled materials. As Taylor Wessing illustrates this would have a big effect on the construction industry as 25% of the waste from the sector is made up of plastic.

A UK parliamentary committee has also been exploring whether a similar tax should be introduced in an attempt to target clothing which contains less than 50% recycled polyester. Such initiatives have been proven to work elsewhere, as RPC have shown in a recent update, a scheme was introduced in Sweden whereby the government reduced the VAT on repair services to bring prices down to incentivise customers to re-use or repair their clothes rather than going out and replacing them with cheaper alternatives.

However, such positive developments do not represent the whole picture. For example, despite the fact that the pervasive black plastic used in supermarket ready meals throughout the United Kingdom can be recycled efficiently, due to its colour it cannot be automatically sorted by infrared machines in recycling plants and therefore ends up being grouped with non-recyclable waste and sent to landfill. Black plastic has become such a problem for recycling that the European Union even awarded £1.47 million to a consortium of plastics manufacturers to work out a way to deal with it. This issue demonstrates how tackling the plastic problem is not straightforward and as Barker Brettell argues, it is up to governments to support innovators within society to develop workarounds to such issues to make recycling plastic viable.

Over in the United States, the single-use plastic problem has also recently been in the news on Lexology. Last week Sidley Austin reported that New York legislative leaders and the New York governor have agreed that this year’s budget should include a ban on single-use plastic bags for retailers and the introduction of a $0.05 charge for customers using paper bags. Although US states have been slow to adopt such legislation – California and Hawaii are the only states to have such restrictions in place – it is hoped Vermont, Massachusetts and Washington will follow suit and introduce new plastic restrictions of their own. As elsewhere around the globe, such developments have tapped into a common desire to make a change. This sentiment has been felt among businesses in the US food and hospitality sector, with some key players pushing things further; Bon Appetit announced that it would ban straws and stirrers from 1,000 US food locations and Royal Caribbean Cruises proclaimed that it “will ring in 2019 free of plastic straws”.

There is a seemingly unstoppable societal tidal wave pushing for change when it comes to the use of single-use plastics, the way they are disposed and the effect they have on our oceans and natural environment. Kilburn & Strode emphasises the idea that if innovators and businesses take advantage of the situation and look for ways to implement a ‘circular plastic economy’ then such waste can actually present an opportunity rather than a problem. However, in order for change to occur, companies, governments, innovators and the public must all pull in the same direction. Countries around the world are implementing restrictions, including India and Australia, and as new laws on the use of plastics are promulgated, progress will be made.