Theresa May’s speech on 11 January, setting out a 25–year plan to improve the environment, prompted much comment from observers and leaders in the sustainability sphere. These largely welcomed many of the measures, while bemoaning a lack of detail or commitment on specific areas. Environmental groups including Greenpeace lamented a lack of vision and ambition, given the urgency of problems like plastic pollution.
Many of the specific policies to achieve the plan’s aims are to be clarified in future strategy announcements.
The plan listed priority areas and broad-brush outlines of the approach the government plans to take. These areas included waste plastics, wildlife, post-Brexit environmental standards, and measures to connect people more with nature.
IEMA’s Chief Policy Advisor Martin Baxter commented:
The plan appears to set out an ambitious vision for leaving the environment in a better pace by eliminating plastic waste, enhancing the natural environment and tackling climate change. The plan’s integration with existing policies and schemes like the Clean Growth Plan, the Industrial Strategy, the UN SDGs and the Paris Accord shows good short- and long-term thinking. We applaud all these moves. However, the plan could be accused of lacking in urgency, and the plan will only have teeth if it’s underpinned by the right legislation and strong governance, yet the Prime Minister made no mention of how the plan will be enforced.”
The government’s list of measures seemed to have waste plastics at the top. May said the intention was to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste though measures such as extending the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers, supporting the water industry to significantly increase water fountains, and and working with retailers on introducing plastic-free supermarket aisles.
IEMA’s Baxter said: “The Government seems to have the bit between its teeth on tackling waste plastics. We welcome the proposal to impose a levy on disposable coffee cups and single-use plastics, and the extension on the 5p charge for plastic bags for small retailers is absolutely the right move. It’s now critically important that action begins right away to ensure this isn’t a case of “green sheen” to win over young voters but builds on Blue Planet II’s impact to create positive and lasting change at scale.
However, Louise Edge, Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, called the announcement on plastic a “missed opportunity”. She said: “It’s good that the government wants to make tackling plastic waste a priority, but the specific measures announced today don’t match the scale of the environmental crisis we face. Encouraging more water fountains, extending charges on plastic bags and funding for innovation can all be part of the solution, but the overall plastics plan lacks urgency, detail and bite.”
“The most glaring gap is support for deposit return schemes. These are tried-and-tested ways to keep plastic bottles out of the environment and have strong public backing, yet there’s no trace of them in the government announcement. And with another truckload of plastic waste going into our oceans every minute, we just can’t wait another 25 years before eliminating throwaway plastic.
“Given the strength of public feelings, the government has the support to be far more ambitious. Ministers should use the forthcoming plastic strategy to up their game and stop kicking the plastic bottle down the road. Britain has the potential to become the first country in the world to end throwaway plastic – it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t waste.”
Cllr Julian Bell, Chair of London Councils’ Transport and Environment Committee, said:
“We support the extension of the plastic bag levy and the focus on eliminating avoidable plastic waste is welcome. But London boroughs need to know whether any new responsibilities for local government will be fully funded, and that the drive to minimise plastic will not detract from work to reduce other types of waste and litter.
“We are disappointed that the strategy does not align with circular economy principles, nor does it include a ban on use of non-recyclable plastic or the introduction of deposit return schemes for plastic bottles.
Simon Ellin of the Recycling Association applauded the commitment in the Prime Minister’s speech to fund research and development into new materials and recycling innovations. He also pointed to the detail within the plan which shows that Government has taken on board some of the challenges faced by the recycling sector.
He referred in particular to the following passage from the plan:
We are committed to supporting comprehensive and frequent waste and recycling collections which protect local amenity and ensure that products are recycled as much as possible, returning high quality materials back to the economy.
This will help stimulate internal UK markets and support strong secondary materials markets as well as exports abroad.
“The reference to quality here is critical, as is the stimulation of UK markets. It is essential that the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy reflects these aspects,” he said.
“This is true for all materials, not just plastics. Putting quality at the heart of the supply chain will provide clarity in terms of packaging design, collections infrastructure, recycling solutions and ultimately secondary materials markets.
In a statement issued by the London Assembly, Chair of the Environment Committee, Leonie Cooper, said:
“The release of the Government’s plastic strategy is welcome. But we really need action now. At current rates, in 25 years’ time, people in the UK would have used 192.5 billion plastic bottles!”
“Londoners consume more plastic bottled water per person than anywhere else in England, we have some of the worst recycling rates in the UK and plastic bottles make up 10 per cent of all litter found in the Thames.”
“In our Bottled Water report last year, we found that improving London’s poor recycling rates is an ongoing challenge for the Mayor and boroughs. Deposit Return Schemes have been successfully introduced elsewhere and may offer one way to increase plastic bottle recycling. Government should look at implementing a national scheme and London is keen to run a pilot programme.”
Cooper said Water refill schemes are also important.
So, while we commend the government’s ideas – we push for more speed to implement solutions to an urgent problem that is getting worse by the day.”
The 25-year plan includes an intention to consult on “a new environmental watchdog to hold government to account for environmental standards” and to set out a new approach to agriculture and fisheries management.
IEMA’s Baxter commented: “Government has promised a Green Brexit, with the UK free to take the best from Brussels and build on this to create a world leading green economy and environment. This is the right ambition, setting us apart from a race to the bottom that would only end badly for the UK. Today the Prime Minister clearly stated that her ambition is that the UK will retain its global leadership on restoring, enhancing and protecting the environment throughout and beyond the Brexit process. This is crucial, as we need to maintain all momentum on decarbonisation and building our natural capital. The proposed consultations on creating the right policies and legislation are welcome, and IEMA and our members will be actively involved in shaping what happens next.”
Roz Bulleid, Head of Climate, Energy and Environment Policy at EEF/UK Steel said:
“From a manufacturers’ perspective, this is a useful step towards a stable post-Brexit regulatory framework for the environment. Companies value transparent and predictable policy environments and there is concern about the government’s ability to provide this after Brexit.
“However, it is the details of the plan’s delivery that will be key, including: the metrics it uses, the powers held by the new independent body, the way EU principles such as ‘polluter pays’ are transferred to the UK statute, and the measures implemented in the forthcoming strategies on clean air and waste & resources.”
Sustainable development pledge
May’s speech also made reference to a new focus with respect to development, and the statement from Defra released concurrently with the announcement said it would “seek to embed a ‘net environmental gain’ principle so development delivers environmental improvements locally and nationally, enabling housing development without increasing overall burdens on developers.”
Ben Kite, Managing Director of EPR, an ecological consultancy that works on behalf of developers and planners throughout the UK, said: “The introduction of an ‘environmental net gain’ principle to cover both housing and infrastructure is welcome, and happily, the Plan also draws a vital connection between the health of the economy and of the natural environment. At last, we can see a clear recognition in policy that better access to healthy natural spaces and the delivery of high-quality Green Infrastructure with new development is good for both physical and mental health and wellbeing.”
“To capitalise on the innovative nature of this plan, the Government now needs move quickly to exploit the momentum it creates, by implementing the proposals and cementing clear timescales for delivery where they are currently omitted. In places, the conditional nature of the language used, and the absence of target deadlines, offers only limited assurance that the objectives outlined will see implementation.”
“In order to avoid the plan becoming merely a ‘plan to have a plan’, the Government must ensure that the laudable actions outlined are actually carried out. This will create clarity and stability for all those working in ecology, planning and development.”
The natural environment
CIWEM felt the plan contained some ambitious long term commitments and near term steps.
“In particular the Institution welcomes the establishment of a natural environment recovery network across England, which will link existing protected sites and landscapes to green and blue infrastructure in towns and cities. This will bring together funding from a range of sources to deliver multiple benefits at the landscape and catchment scale.”
This aligns with a recent CIWEM report calling for a greater onus on delivery through an enhanced role for catchment partnerships.
A plastics-related element of the announcement that seemed to escape many people’s attention was lauded by WRAP. This is the inclusion in the plan of “an ambitious UK initiative” to be jointly developed by itself and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This will involve collaborative action by businesses, industry, governments, local authorities, NGOs, media and society at large, to – as WRAP says in a statement – “re-define what is possible and create a plastic system that works – a circular economy where plastic is valued and never becomes waste.”
The WRAP statement outlined the initial focus on plastic packaging with the following list of priorities:
• Eliminate unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging
• Make sure all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable
• Significantly increase the collection and recycling of plastic packaging
• Increase recycled content in plastic packaging to drive demand for recycled material
• Impassion and enable citizens to play their part in reducing plastic packaging waste and litter
Marcus Gover, CEO at WRAP, said: “So far the solutions to plastic waste have been piecemeal. I am pleased to be leading this holistic initiative which will transform the UK’s plastics system. Working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we will bring together every ‘body, business and organisation’ involved in the life-cycle of plastics to make the move from a throw away culture to one where resources are used over and over again.”