Research Centre

COVID-19: A turning point for plastic legislation?

By May 15, 2020June 1st, 2020No Comments

The coronavirus has evolved into a global pandemic fundamentally changing the way we live our lives. As such, key government legislation such as the plastic packaging tax has been delayed, stimulating a discussion on how the setbacks will be resolved.

The plastic packaging tax and the single-use plastic ban are two significant components of the UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. However, COVID-19 has shifted prioritisation to that of the health and safety of the UK’s citizens and economy, leading to delays in forming legislation. What are some of the perspectives on this delay and how will the government seek to rearrange its schedule to accommodate these measures?

Plastic ban on hold

The single-use plastic ban will remove single-use plastics such as straws, cotton-buds, stirrers and sachets and replace them with alternate, more sustainable materials. The goal of the legislation is to achieve a reduction in the amount of throwaway plastic, a large proportion of which ends up in our seas. In 2010, between 4.8-12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic waste entered our oceans from land-based sources. Demonstrating the effect of this scourge of plastic, according to some estimates published by the National Geographic, it has affected 700 species of marine wildlife. Hence, these measures are necessary and need to be implemented as soon as possible. The single-use plastic ban was due to come into force from April 2020. However due to coronavirus, it has been delayed. Organisations and key individuals such as the Chair of the Real Circularity Coalition, Lucy Siegle has stated that the delay “risks plunging us further into the plastic pollution crisis that has blighted our lives for decades.” Yet, this isn’t the only legislation which has been put on hold.

Extending the plastic packaging tax consultation

The plastic packaging tax is a government measure stating that plastic packaging which does not include at least 30% recycled content will be taxed £200 a tonne. The goal of the tax is to encourage businesses to recycle more of their plastic packaging and to use more recycled plastic in their packaging. The scheduled date for this government measure was April 2022. However, the consultation period which was supposed to end on the 20th of May next week, has now been extended to August 20, 2020. Due to the disruption caused by the health epidemic, stakeholders have now been provided an additional three months to submit their viewpoints on the tax procedure. Martin Kersh, the executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, emphasised the difficulty of successfully meeting the deadline of 30% recycled content in the current circumstances. “Environment managers [are] currently furloughed and members manufacturing capacity [have been] re-directed to producing much needed PPE.” With work capacity considerably low, it also remains to be seen just how long the epidemic will continue to cause disruption.

A rise in plastic waste from PPE

Although the delays in key plastic legislation is understandable due to the current circumstances, a considerable surge of production of PPE means that there are substantially more plastic items being discarded. The government has already delivered 761 million pieces of PPE across the UK, all of which for hygiene reasons would be for single use only. Although there are various rules regarding the disposal of medical waste, the usage of face masks and gloves have also become increasingly common amongst regular citizens and are stacking up. If we do not use a more sustainable material (for facemasks for example), the surge in plastic waste could potentially end up in the ocean, causing irreparable damage to ocean habitats. Thus, getting a better grip on plastic waste is therefore imperative.

Coronavirus and its positive effect on the environment, in particular air quality, has certainly been profound. However, it has also deeply affected the economy, people’s health and well-being and our plastic use. Due to the increasing amount of plastic waste from PPE, how far of a push-back in implementing legislation aiming to reduce plastic waste is acceptable? The plastic tax and single-use plastic ban are vital pieces of legislation which should not be delayed too far back as plastic pollution is increasing considerably. One may well wonder if there is any appetite to link up wider policies to tackle plastic waste for once and for all?