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UK Waste System ‘Overhaul’ Would Make Plastic Polluters Pay

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A recycling team on the river Thames' Southbank cleaning the beach from plastic and garbage on Aug. 23, 2018. Alberto Pezzali / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The UK government announced plans Monday to "overhaul" its waste system, with the aim of reducing plastic pollution and moving towards a circular economy that would not rely on single-use items.

To that end, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is launching four major consultations on proposed changes, including a plan to make packaging producers pay fully for processing their waste and a tax on plastic packaging that is not made from at least 30 percent recycled material.


"We are committed to going further and faster to reduce, reuse, recycle and cut waste," UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove said in a statement. "That's why we are leading the way to move away from being a 'throw-away' society and drive up domestic recycling."

The announcement laid out four major changes:

1. Extended Producer Responsibility

Currently, packaging producers in the UK pay about 10 percent of the cost of disposing of their packaging. The government hopes that by asking them to pay the full amount, they will motivate them to create easier-to-recycle materials.

The existing producer responsibility program for packaging has been successful. Since it was instituted in 1997, the percentage of plastic waste recycled in the UK has increased from 25 percent to 64.7 percent in 2016, according to Defra.

2. Plastic Packaging Tax

The government is also launching a consultation on what it calls a "world leading" tax on the production or import of plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30 percent recycled material. The tax would go into effect April 2022. The idea for the tax came from evidence gathered about single-use plastics last year, which revealed that recycled plastic is more expensive for companies than new plastic. The government is hoping to implement a financial counter-pressure.

"Plastic packaging makes up two-thirds of all the plastic waste that pollutes this country and wreaks havoc on our environment," Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said in a statement. "It's our responsibility to do something about it and that's why we will introduce a new tax on the producers of plastic packaging that don't use enough recycled material."

3. Consistency in Recycling Collections

The government is seeking consultation on a plan to develop a consistent set of recyclable materials across England, no matter where a person lives. The hope is to reduce confusion about what can and cannot be put in the recycling bin during collections. Recycling rates by English households rose from 11 percent in 2001 to 45.2 percent in 2017, but Defra says those rates have stalled and even fallen in some local areas.

'Householders who want to recycle more are increasingly confused about what can be recycled," Defra wrote.

4. Deposit Return Scheme

The government has also started a consultation on whether or not to introduce a deposit return scheme for cans and glass and plastic bottles. It hopes this could reduce the estimated three billion plastic bottles that are incinerated, dumped in landfills or littered in the environment where they could make their way to the oceans.

Two models are being considered: an "all-in" model that would allow customers to return bottles used for a variety of common beverages and an "on-the-go" model that would focus on particular container types 750 milliliters (approximately 25.4 fluid ounces) or less in size that are commonly purchased to go.

The consultations will run for 12 weeks and the plans will form part of an environment bill to be introduced by the government in the second session of Parliament.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth welcomed the proposals, but said that more ambitious measures were needed to solve the plastic crisis. In particular, plastic campaigner Julian Kirby applauded the tax and the deposit scheme. However, Kirby recommended the tax be reviewed periodically to increase the minimum amount of recycled material packaging must contain to avoid taxation. Kirby also said the deposit scheme should not be limited to small bottles.

"These proposals are welcome steps forward—but bigger strides are needed if we are truly going to deal with the consequences of our throwaway society," Kirby said in a press release.

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