Tackling the Plastic Problem: The Future of UK Policy

On the 19th of November, the Energy & Environment Policy Centre hosted a panel discussion on the current economic and environmental issues surrounding plastic waste in the UK. This event was motivated by the recent UK media focus on the issue and a call for evidence by HM Treasury on the idea of a UK plastic tax.

Four speakers were present: Dr James Borrell, Research Fellow at RBG Kew; Laurie Laybourn-Langton, a researcher at the Progressive Policy Think Tank IPPR; Olivia Preston, Operations Sustainability Manager at King’s College London; and Jon Khoo, Innovation Partner at Interface. The event consisted of opening statements and chair-led Q&As, as well as questions from the 70-strong audience, aiming to elicit ideas about the effects of plastic on the environment and society, how the UK can deal with plastic pollution, and the ramifications of the current focus on plastic both in popular culture and society and at the government policy level.

The event started with opening statements from the guest speakers on their initial thoughts on the topic. Dr Borrell opened by arguing that specificity is needed when tackling this problem: in some cases, plastic may be the best available option, and any single-use item, not just plastic, must be avoided. Laurie Laybourn-Langton added to this by arguing that despite plastics posing a problem to the environment, they offer a welcome distraction from larger environmental issues the world faces: namely about climate change.

Here, Laybourn-Langton identified a tension between the positive impact of recent TV shows which encourage people to care about environmental issues and which act as entry way into ideas of a circular economy, and the potential for ‘crowding out’ more important issues currently impacting the environment. Laybourn-Langton also called out many of the current global and UK policies and regulations as showing a ‘trifecta of inadequacy’: they are under-resourced, too slow to act, and not effectively enforced. Further, he argued that UK policies in recent years have not challenged vested interests, and often rely on the corporations that benefit from weaker regulations to create and enforce regulations.

Olivia Preston was keen to focus on what King’s as an institution has so far attempted to do to solve its plastic problem. Here, many problems have arisen from issues with details and specificities of the types of plastic or containers that are used, which often mislead consumers into thinking that materials can be recycled into the same item they have thrown away, or composted. Most important to Preston was that, although companies have a responsibility to find solutions, understanding how consumers act as one part of these chains is equally important. Jon Khoo agreed that public awareness of the issue will lead to change, and posited that industries had a large role in trying to solve this problem. By explaining how Interface, a carpet company, produces sustainable carpets, Khoo provided insight into how companies can and do go about trying to have a positive influence on the environment, and that increasingly large businesses want to hear and act on this message which could act as a gateway to further changes in how they interact with the environment around them.

The panellists were asked if, as a society, we will or should ever go plastic-free. The resounding answer was no. Indeed, despite Preston referencing the European Commission in arguing for reduction in plastic use over recycling, Laybourn-Langton highlighted some vital uses of plastics currently that cannot, and perhaps should not, be replaced. Despite this the panel agreed that where possible single-use plastics should be phased out of common use. The panellists then delved deeper into the effectiveness and appropriateness of focusing on the plastic issue as a ‘hook’ to reel people into showing interest in other environmental issues. Dr Borrell highlighted that plastic could be a gateway to this, but was keen to show that from a biologist’s perspective, recent findings have shown that the effect of plastic on the environment is perhaps more negative than previously thought. Laybourn-Langton argued that the largest problem to solve is not the consumer, but to create a paradigm shift in the way resources are consumed and wasted in our society more widely.

The floor was opened up to questions from our enthusiastic audience. One member asked the panel why industries are not acting faster to mitigate the plastic problem, and what was missing to encourage change. Khoo replied that traditional mindsets around branding and sales have slowed innovation around plastics and waste. Despite marketeers claims of being progressive, he went on to say, the main focus has not as yet been on replacement of these products due to closed-mindedness. Laybourn-Langton added that the legal requirement of companies to provide shareholders with quarterly reports on progress hinders long-term strategic thinking, and the constant need to increase consumer demand currently flies in the face of any reduction in plastic production.

Another member of the audience asked about how we as individuals can make the government change its tune on issues such as plastic waste. Borrell urged the audience to become, or continue to be, more educated consumers of information and decision-makers to counter media trends towards simplistic and trivial stories that do not tackle the issue and spread the word. Both Khoo and Preston promoted trying to constructively confront businesses on what they are currently doing, and what they could do: whether through networks, or being a member of staff.

A member of the audience asked about current methods of tackling the plastic issue in the UK, and the recent consultation on the introduction of a tax on plastic items with less than 30% recycled content. Preston agreed that taxation was part of the overall solution, but Borrell amongst others emphasised that this tax was simply not enough, and although it helps Laybourn-Langton described it as “inadequate” compared to other policies already in place elsewhere, and that the key was to go deeper and tackle structural problems in other ways than through market levers alone.

Overall, the message was loud and clear from the speakers: despite much media and public attention on this issue, current policy doesn’t yet meet the expectations of the people working to solve this problem. Wider structural issues were discussed, which were often overlooked at a policy level, such as social norms, global treaties, and the relationship between policymakers, the public, and corporations. The final comment on all the speakers’ lips was the worry, however, that the debate on plastic drowns out action on other, potentially more dangerous, environmental risks we face.

George Warren is the director of the Energy and Environment policy centre at King’s Think Tank. He is currently completing his PhD at King’s College London’s Geography Department, researching the influence of age on perceptions of climate change. 

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