The new restriction on single-use plastics in England sounds fantastic, but it is a capitulation to big business.
Thérèse Coffey is planning to outlaw single-use plastic plates, cutlery, and polystyrene cups two years after the government of England banned plastic straws, cotton buds, and microbeads in several beauty items. Thus, it is possible that England will stop producing 1.1 billion plates and 4.25 billion pieces of flatware annually.
That sounds impressive as if the environment secretary is taking control of plastics that are only used once but persist for years before decomposing into countless small fragments and contaminating rivers and seas. However, an issue that has been known for years and is now out of control is barely addressed by the new prohibition.
Not only have the Welsh and Scottish governments, who both took action on plastic trash last year, shamed Coffey into taking action, but it also looks that the English restriction applies exclusively to the plastic used in takeaway outlets and not in supermarkets or shops.
Few contaminants are more nefarious or important to address than plastic. From mountaintops to ocean trenches, microplastics are everywhere. Plastic literally falls from the sky on humans and animals, and it may also be discovered in our food. But the ban’s reach is too constrained. Single-use plastic water bottles are not covered, plastic bags are not mentioned, and there is not even an attempt to regulate the incineration of plastic garbage in incinerators. There is still no deposit return system in place for beverage containers, nor are there any restrictions on the export of plastic waste to underdeveloped nations.
Coffey boasted when announcing the restriction that “a plastic fork can take 200 years to degrade.” However, merely making this small advancement will have required nearly 18 months of deliberation, multiple environment secretaries, and intense public pressure by the time the new law is passed. To completely halt plastic pollution at this rate will take more than 200 years.
It is obvious that the government has no immediate plans to take extensive action. Nothing is being done to encourage the catering industry or homes to recycle more, and there is no financial incentive for fast-food or catering businesses to stop using single-use plastic. To clean up the plastic trash that has accumulated on roadsides and beaches, local authorities are not to be assisted in any manner. The production of single-use plastic will not be restricted; only a few ill-defined goods will be allowed in specified locations. The proposal appears to be riddled with flaws.
Simply put, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has been politically embarrassed enough to introduce minimal legislation that will give the appearance of taking action in response to accusations of inaction and delay regarding sewage being pumped into English waterways and criticism for its slow and lax air pollution targets. It has chosen to target fast food restaurants, many of which provide inexpensive meals, and has presented plastic waste as litter made by the general public, which is undermined by an ideological commitment to let big business do as it pleases. The manufacturing of plastic by a colossally powerful global petrochemical sector, which provides the raw materials for making plastics, is the true issue.
For the past 70 years, plastic has been on an unstoppable rise. Without government restrictions, the petrochemical sector is defying the global recession and erecting massive new plastic factories, like a massive new Shell plant in Pennsylvania, to open up lucrative new markets for the people of developing nations. In order to counter anticipated future losses from a shift to renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry currently relies on plastic profit margins.
Governments are aware of the massive scale of plastic pollution that has now occurred, particularly in the marine environment. Nearly 40% of all plastic is used for packaging, which is used in about half of all single-use items. The recycling rate is only 10%. The startling reality is that, with the exception of the minuscule amount of plastic that has been burned, almost every single piece of plastic ever produced still exists today.
When the Climate Change Act was enacted in Britain in 2008, the country became the world’s pioneer. It established a strong independent advisory council and made a net zero strategic commitment. With the potential to potentially cut plastic production in half, it now has the chance to lead UN discussions to adopt the first global plastics pollution pact.
However, there is no need to wait for UN approval, which is excruciatingly slow to come by and will unavoidably face fierce opposition from the fossil fuel sector. It might set an exemplary example and claim the moral high ground. Stopping the plastics sector would prevent Britain from being seen as an eco-laggard, cost the public purse nothing, and restore trust in the capacity of governments to manage these pressing issues.