The issue of problematic plastic waste proved an important area of discussion at the UN's Climate Summit COP27. Many of the meaningful policies and commitments that have been the focus of previous climate summits have prioritised combating carbon. Looking ahead, however, plastics pollution is thought by many to require a much greater international focus and collaboration. In this article, we look at the current areas of focus internationally to help reduce plastic waste and summarise the key pieces of UK legislation relating to this subject.
New goals for reducing plastic waste
A UK team of experts who advise the United Nations, G20 and World Bank has called for a zero target to be set for new plastic pollution by 2040. Part of that team includes Professor Steve Fletcher who has said: "A system change needs to arise that fundamentally alters the way we behave and interact with plastic". In addition, Miho Shirotori, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's (UNCTAD) officer-in-charge for the division on international trade and commodities has expressed that "The future is not plastic. The future is plastic substitutes, and trade can help in the transition."
Plastic waste has become a key driver of pollution across the world, overwhelming marine, terrestrial and aerial ecosystems. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. The total plastic mass represents twice all living mammals, with 80% of all plastics ever produced still in the environment.
The Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments introduced on 1 January 2021 legally bind 190 parties to a strict control procedure with respect to the transboundary movement of problematic plastic wastes. They are a stepping stone towards ending plastic pollution, a goal supported by the historic resolution to establish an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, adopted during the fifth UN Environment Assembly.
What happened at COP27?
In advance of COP27 the UN published a number of publications focusing on the use of plastics internationally and how multilateral action is required. Among these publications is 'Enabling Concerted Multilateral Action on Plastic Pollution and Plastics Substitutes', which contains nine proposed actions to address plastic pollution in the near and medium term:
- Forge a United Nations agreement with core overarching goals, targets, and commitments, by for example:
- Setting a global goal for incrementally phasing out unnecessary, harmful, hazardous, and problematic plastics and hazardous plastic wastes.
- Setting a global goal for increasing the level of solid waste management and recycling linked to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction objectives under Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
- Create an international scientific advisory body on plastics pollution, effects and solutions (an International Panel on the plastics pollution).
- Increase understanding, scientific base and create capacities on the environmental and health impacts across the life cycle of different types of plastics and waste, and how to manage associated risks and policy options.
- Explore the value and use of national bans/quotas/taxes on certain virgin and single use plastics under a fair, non-discriminatory and transparent manner.
- Increase the use and trade of environmentally preferable material substitutes (non-plastics) an alternatives (sustainable plastics) (UNCTAD, 2021).
- Consider including in an eventual United Nations agreement on plastics pollution a set of minimum harmonised standards applicable at the national level - complementing trade action – focusing on production, consumption and recycling of plastics.
- Facilitate access to, and promote incremental liberalisation of, preferable environmental services and increase Official Development Assistance (ODA), technical cooperation, and capacity building for solid waste and plastic management - covering up-mid-and downstream actions.
- Enable increased coordination of national and municipal entities - create economies of scale and scope for interested businesses in improved environmentally sound waste collection and management capacities.
- Define common metrics and methodologies for implementation and monitoring of goals, potentially through the creation of a digital platform for data transparency in plastic waste and scrap trade, including flows and notifications of prior informed consent covered by the Basel Plastic Amendments.
It remains to be seen how these proposed actions will be strengthened by the implementation of meaningful policy and legally binding commitments on plastics internationally.
Plastics in the UK
In the last couple of years there have been a number of measures introduced to regulate the use of plastics in the UK. A few pieces of legislation of note include:
The Environment Act 2021
Born at around the time of last year's COP26, the Environment Act 2021 introduced measures that are intended to incentivise recycling, increase the use of more sustainable packaging, make household recycling easier and stop the export of polluting plastic waste to developing countries.
The Environment Act 2021 gives powers to the Secretary of State to:
- introduce regulations that may make provisions for targets to be achieved in relation to the proportion of products or materials (by weight, volume or otherwise) to be re-used, redistributed, recovered or recycled (either generally or in a specified way);
- regulate sellers of goods or services using single use items made wholly or partially of plastic;
- includes reporting requirements on sellers to keep records relating to charges made for items specified in the regulations; and
- introduces powers to introduce civil sanctions, including fixed monetary penalties, discretionary requirements, stop notices and enforcement undertaking for non-compliance with any packaging related regulations.
Finance Act 2021 (the FA)
From 1 April 2022 the FA introduced a new tax on plastic (the Plastic Tax), which will be levied on all plastics (either manufactured in or imported into the UK) that are less than 30% recycled. The Plastic Tax is intended to encourage the use of recycled plastic and discourage the use of new plastic.
The Plastic Tax will apply to any company that imports and/or manufactures more than 10 tonnes of plastic packaging components into the UK in a 12-month period. Companies will be required to pay £200 per tonne of plastic that is less than 30% recycled. The scope of the Plastic Tax is particularly broad and will apply to finished, filled or unfilled, plastic packaging components with less than 30% recycled plastic.
The breadth of the Plastic Tax is far reaching and it affects companies across all sectors, as well as their supply chains. Companies will need to:
- ensure they register annually with HMRC by 30th April;
- conduct some due diligence and gather evidence of any plastic packaging that has more than 30% recycled content e.g. packaging specifications, production certificate, invoices etc;
- maintain records, evidence and samples documenting the amount of plastic packaging (in tonnes) imported or manufactured in the UK. HMRC will require this on a quarterly basis when the legislation comes into force; and
- consider the financial implications and pay the relevant levy.
We also advise companies to maintain a dialogue with suppliers both in the UK and internationally to discuss the Plastic Tax. A short informative note in writing to suppliers (some of whom may be unaware of this change), asking for records of what plastics they use and for information on how they intend on adhering to the Plastic Tax going forwards would be a good first step.
The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 (the Waste Regulations) contain important reporting requirements to the Environment Agency in respect of the management of packaging waste for companies with a turnover exceeding £2 million and which handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging annually. Reporting requirements required by the Environment Agency are an important consideration as failure to comply can not only result in costly sanctions, but can also expose companies to reputational damage. The Waste Regulations are also an important due diligence consideration in company sales or acquisitions where the threshold is met.
The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021
The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 came into force on 1 June 2022 and ban the use of many problematic single-use plastics in Scotland. The ban applies to the following single-use items: plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks), plates, straws, beverage stirrers and balloon sticks; food containers made of expanded polystyrene; and cups and other beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids. Enforcement will be the responsibility of local authorities. Failure to comply with the regulations carries a maximum fine of £5,000.
Potential future UK reforms
Labour MP Geraint Davies has tabled a bill in Parliament, the Plastics (Recycling, Sustainability and Pollution Reduction) Bill, that would also require the environment secretary to set targets and measures for the elimination and recycling of single-use plastics. These would have to be more demanding than equivalent targets set by the EU.
Among some of the suggested reforms the proposed Bill asks the UK Government to:
- set targets to eliminate single-use plastics, to develop proposals that encourage more reuse and refill models of packaging, and to ban plastic waste exports by 2027;
- require manufacturers and retailers to pay for the cost of recycling plastic;
- to require the Government to set annual targets for reducing the quantity of plastic waste that is incinerated;
- to require the Secretary of State to publish a plan for banning the export of plastic waste by 2027; and
- make provisions to encourage the development of sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging.
The Bill is currently at the House of Commons stage (at the second reading) and the text for the Bill is not currently available.
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