Plastics and the Environment Bill
The Environment Bill has been widely welcomed as an attempt to set out the UK’s new legal framework for environmental matters and deliver the government’s manifesto commitments to protect and improve the natural environment in the UK. Plans to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS), create the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), restrict waste exports, establish a more consistent approach to waste collection and recycling, as well as formalise the principle of extended producer responsibility, have all been viewed as positive developments. A discussion with industry leaders, academia and the third sector has helped Policy Connect to develop a set of recommendations that would strengthen the Bill’s position on plastics.
- Strengthen the language of the Bill to compel the relevant national authorities to act, and publish an accompanying policy statement that sets out clear timelines.
The list of powers that the Bill seeks to introduce was widely welcomed. However, the Bill does not mandate action, or detail when and how powers will be used. This uncertainty is highly problematic for businesses, local governments and consumers, as it stops them from being able to adequately plan and prepare. To ensure that the powers granted by the Bill are fully leveraged, and to reduce uncertainty for stakeholders, the Bill should make it ‘the duty’ of the Secretary of State to take action using the powers granted to them. This would mirror the language of the Climate Change Act 2008.
The Bill should also set the framework to enable each element to be enacted in a timely manner. This could be achieved by publishing a policy statement to accompany the Bill that sets out the key milestones, mirroring those set out in the Resources and Waste Strategy.
In addition, any necessary secondary legislation or other policy instruments must be released as early as possible to allow stakeholders sufficient time to prepare for their implementation.
- Provide more clarity on the targets to be set in the area of ‘resource efficiency and waste reduction’.
Relevant section of the Bill: Clause 1
Clause 1 of the Bill indicates that the Secretary of State must set at least one long-term target in the area of ‘resource efficiency and waste reduction’. This should be expanded to commit the Secretary of State to set at least one target in each of a number of more specific aspects of resource efficiency and waste reduction, including in:
- Consumption reduction targets
- Material specific collection and reprocessing targets
- Split international export/domestic reprocessing targets (increasing to 100% domestic reprocessing by 2030)
- Further commitment from the government that in addition to responsibility for covering end-of-life costs, emphasis will be put on practices higher up the waste hierarchy when implementing producer responsibility obligations.
Relevant sections of the Bill: Clause 47-48, Schedule 4
The Bill currently interprets the producer’s responsibility mainly in relation to end-of-life costs (recycling and disposal). However, the producer’s responsibility should be extended to include more than just the post-consumer stage of the product. A ‘life cycle approach’ should be adopted with more emphasis on re-use and reduction, rather than simply design for recyclability.
- Introduce mandatory labelling and provide more transparency of what happens to materials after their end of life.
Relevant section of the Bill: Clause 49, Schedule 6
The Bill currently gives power to the relevant authority to make regulations about resource efficiency labelling for all products, enabling customers to have more information about the products they choose.
However, this should be obligatory rather than optional. Therefore, Schedule 6 should be changed so that the relevant authority is obliged to make labelling mandatory.
- Make Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) consistent across the UK.
Relevant Sections of the Bill: Clause 51, Schedule 8
The planned DRS for plastics, metals and glass has been widely welcomed by industry. However, it is important that any DRS introduced in the UK has nation-wide consistency. As the 4 nations of the UK have differing timelines in relation to introducing a DRS, there needs to be greater focus on ensuring the compatibility of the different national schemes.
- Introduce charges on any unnecessary single use item, regardless of material.
Relevant section of the Bill: Clause 52, Clause 53, Schedule 9
Currently, the Bill only seeks to introduce new charges on single use plastic items. However, many single use items are now made from other materials such as wood, which, similar to some plastics, may also not be reusable or recyclable, and may even have a higher carbon implication than plastic. Thus, Clause 52 should include the scope for charges for single use products to be extended to other materials.
The Bill should also establish a clear definition of ‘single use’, in-line with the definition used in the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive.
- Introduce clear quality assurance criteria to be met by recipient countries of UK plastic waste exports, and ensure that authorities overseeing these regulations have sufficient capacity and funding to enforce them.
Relevant section of the Bill: Clause 59
Clause 59 on the transfrontier shipment of waste gives the Secretary of State the power to prohibit or restrict the exportation of waste by destination. In the Queen’s Speech, a ban on the export of polluting plastic waste to countries outside of the OECD was set out.
However, the capacity of certain OECD countries –such as Turkey– to deal with the UK’s plastic waste exports is questionable, and is an issue that is followed with great interest by the general public.
Instead of the proposed policy of a ban on plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries, a set of quality assurance criteria should be created to determine which countries have the capacity to handle UK plastic waste exports safely.
- Eliminate the export of recyclable plastic waste by 2030.
Relevant section of the Bill: Clause 1, Clause 59.
In addition to immediately ceasing the shipment of plastic waste to countries with low environmental standards, the UK should decrease its reliance on exporting plastic waste entirely, and instead invest in boosting domestic recycling and remanufacturing capacities. This could be done by setting split targets for plastic waste exports and domestic reprocessing, ultimately increasing the domestic target to 100% by 2030.
- Introduce an end use register for all recycled waste created.
There is a notorious lack of reporting around the end destination of waste. In order to address this, the Bill should enable the post-consumer tracking of materials at their end of life. Therefore, the Secretary of State should be required to make a mandatory register that details the end use of all recycled waste, which would be open for public inspection. This increase in transparency would help boost consumer confidence in recycling.
- Include a commitment to consider the net zero emissions and biodiversity recovery targets.
The Bill should include a clause committing the Secretary of State to ensure all decisions relating to resources and waste are consistent with the UK’s commitments on carbon emission reductions and biodiversity recovery. This should help cross-government working in future and avoid the risk of legal challenge.
On 5th March 2020, the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) held a roundtable in parliament to discuss potential amendments to the upcoming Environment Bill in relation to plastics. Present at the roundtable were MPs, peers and representatives from the waste and resources, packaging and retail sectors, environmental NGOs and a body representing local authorities.
Although the discussion was used to inform the above recommendations, the recommendations have been formulated solely by, and are only attributable to, Policy Connect.