Single-use Packaging, Who’s Tax Is It Anyway?

With … the Environment Secretary I will investigate how the tax system and charges on single-use plastic items can reduce waste,” 

So our Chancellor announced in the Autumn budget, followed by the Treasury saying that “..hopefully this is the beginning of the end for single-use plastic” – sending campaigners cheering, the packaging industry into a frenzy and lots of us in the middle scratching our heads as to what he actually means; how ambitious this investigation will be and how long this will all take – witness how long it took to introduce the 5p plastic bag tax… the wheels of government do not turn quickly!

Immediately questions arise as to what single-use even means - if you can’t reuse plastic cutlery, or a straw, is it still single-use? But if you can reuse or recycle a plastic water bottle, is it single-use? You can bet your bottom dollar industry associations and lobbying groups will all be fighting their corners to be exempt.

The fact is that something has to be done – of the 311million tonnes of plastics produced annually, 25% (78 million tonnes) goes into packaging. Only 14% of this is recycled and, of that, only 2% is actually ‘closed loop’ recycled. This shows a staggering loss of $80 - $120 billion worth of resources after a short single life cycle.

Suddenly, from the odd article in a specialist publication – plastic is now everywhere. Whether it’s the behind the scenes work that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been doing with business and government through their New Plastics Economy Initiative; or the brilliant grassroots campaigns such as Plastic Free Aisle, #RefuseTheSTraw, 2 min Beach Clean; the turtle straw extraction video that went viral, or the visceral image of plastics in the oceans in Blue Planet II – plastic waste is everywhere, and the tide of consumer opinion is turning.

But, whilst the images of plastics may be inescapable, plastic packaging is also inescapable. Apart from a few bulk shops like Unpackaged, there is very little option to purchase products in mainstream outlets without packaging. Alongside a potential tax on single-use packaging, the Government is also consulting on the re-introduction of new Deposit Return Schemes as another policy lever to effect change so it does feel like something is happening. 

On top of the problem of packaging in retail, the rise in ‘on-the-go’ convenience consumption has led to a massive increase in single-use packaging - try going into any high-street café for lunch and finding a reusable metal fork! The high turnover in these outlets means that speed is key; everything is disposable so it can be binned as washing would take too much time. Allegedly a lot of it is compostable or biodegradable but this means nothing unless the compostable materials are properly segregated in the waste stream – take a look in any of their bins and you can see that this is patently not happening. The reality? It is all being incinerated (with some benefit of ‘waste to energy’), but it’s a sticking plaster, not a solution, to this insane resource wastefullness.

The idea of a tax on single-use packaging, much like the 5p plastic bag charge in the supermarket, seems sensible to drastically cut down on usage. But who is realistically going to pay for it?

The principle of ‘polluter pays’ is sound – but the way single-use packaging moves through the supply chain and into our environment (when disposed of incorrectly) means that the tax will have to be applied fairly across the supply chain, not just to the consumer who has very little other option. Yes, we could, and should, all be bringing our own reusable cups, cutlery and containers to eat but realistically this is about 2% of the population. And even Pret aren’t going to start giving me a pre-made salad in my box – their business models aren’t set up to deal with it. The supply chain has a habit of ensuring the consumer ends up paying for increased costs. Apart from being grossly unfair, this is a pretty hard message to sell in a Brexit environment where food prices are already rising, and ‘shrinkflation’ leaves consumers feeling short-changed on their favourite products.

And where will the tax go? Whilst I understand that it suits supermarkets profiles to give the proceeds of the 5p plastic bag tax to good causes, I would much rather the money was invested in much needed improvements to the country’s recycling infrastructure. Where will the single-use packaging tax go – more good causes? Or cash-strapped local or national governments who, quite rightly, in this age of austerity have to take income wherever they can find it.

The packaging industry tend to see the negative externalities of their products as a consumer issue, a problem of littering that could be changed with a cultural shift. To a certain extent this is true, and the brilliant people at Keep Britain Tidy are doing a fantastic job creating partnerships to tackle this, but the way the system is set up means the sheer volume of single-use packaging is utterly overwhelming an infrastructure not designed to cope with it.  

And what end are we trying to achieve – replacing plastic with a ‘sustainable’ alternative and bolstering the growing biodegradable packaging sector (with all the questions that brings of whether it’s morally correct to grow crops to make into single-use packaging). Or do we want to tackle the heart of our ‘single-use’ culture, with all of the financial implications that brings for our economy? And even if we did go far enough in the UK, the problem is global - we need concerted action internationally to really make headway.

It is impossible for us to say at this stage what this tax will look like, and whether it will have any effect but what we do know is that we need a raft of changes – some legislative, some cultural. Some existing systems need reforming, to make them more effective and, in some cases, we need to shift to radical new reuse systems.

Only then will we have a hope in hell of turning the tide on plastic waste.