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This is how the government could be celebrating Earth Day

As conservatives, we understand that it is our duty to leave the world in a better state than when we found it. No clearer is our need to exercise this duty than when it comes to dealing with plastic pollution. This year the Earth Day theme - ‘planet vs plastics’ - highlights the increasingly overwhelming problems that plastic is causing globally. To steer us away from a legacy of plastic waste and pollution, the UK must show bold and ambitious leadership as we enter the penultimate round of the negotiations for the UN Global Plastics Treaty this week.

Bert Evans-Bevan | Nature Programme Officer

Synthetic materials like plastics allowed us to move past the constraints of the natural world by replacing demand for ivory for example and offer products to new, more democratic markets. Although the rise of single use plastics have shown that it is fundamentally unsustainable for a product to be used for minutes and then remain as an environmental hazard for the next few centuries. It is not just where plastic products end up that is harmful. Plastic is inherently polluting throughout its life cycle. Extracting fossil fuels and turning them into plastics creates a lot of air pollution and CO2 in itself.

We are producing far more than we can cope with and now plastic is everywhere, projected to have a greater weight in the ocean than fish by 2050 whilst microplastics are being found in breastmilk and even the human placenta. These findings showcase the need to drastically reduce plastic waste on a global scale, which is why we must make the most of any global plastic negotiations that come up on the agenda. 

This is all the more concerning when we learn just 14% of plastic is recycled globally. In the UK we have taken steps to improve this figure by introducing a plastic tax on manufactured or imported plastic packaging components which contain less than 30% recycled plastic.  

However, further action must be taken to keep plastic in the system, and the UK should lead by example and deliver its long awaited recycling reforms. This includes the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme to make packaging recyclable and ensure more of it is actually recycled, a deposit return scheme (DRS) to incentivise the return of a commonly littered source of plastic, and the Simpler Recycling reforms to ensure everyone is able to dispose of as much recyclable waste as conveniently as possible.

A major leaver in turning the tide on plastic waste is to eliminate unnecessary plastic, and with the plastic we do need we must innovate and circulate to keep it in the economy and out of our oceans. The government has made progress in eliminating unnecessary plastic by banning single-use plastic items like food containers, drinks stirrers, balloon sticks and cutlery but must seek out and continue in its efforts to reduce the 90 billion plastic pieces thrown away by UK households each year. 

WRAP’s recent campaign suggests that the removal of plastic on fruit and vegetables could save 10,300 tonnes of plastic waste annually as well as 10,000 tonnes of food waste if the ‘best before’ influence was removed as well. A ban like this would be a win-win and show the global community that we are serious about tackling unnecessary plastic use. 

Plastic epitomised the credentials for design in the 20th century, it was cheap and practical, but we must now make it fit for the 21st century. This means addressing its environmental shortcomings and ensuring that it can fit into a system of reuse, whether that means being fully recyclable, biodegradable or made regeneratively. The UK has shown leadership on this by establishing the world’s first UN-backed centre for circular economy research, and the upcoming treaty negotiations present a good opportunity for the UK to encourage more nations to follow suit. 

Plastic has gone from being an environmental solution to a problem of its own and must in turn be solved. And whilst simply banning and reducing plastic can be an easy fix in some cases, plastic is still a remarkable material with huge value. But we must be wiser and more conservative in how we use it. To lead on plastic pollution is a vital intergenerational mission with a global impact, and the UK is well placed to do so.


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