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18 May 2018updated 25 Jun 2021 4:17am

Politicians posing with re-useable cups won’t solve the plastics crisis

Plastic has become emblematic of Conservative green policy – but it is a sign of their timidity, not their success.

By India Bourke

“I cannot understand it. Is it apathy? Is it incompetence? Is it lack of interest or laziness?” asked Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith during a debate in Westminster Hall the other week. “There is no justifiable reason why they should still be here today” … The source of his wrath? Parliament’s plastic cups.

Speaking during a recent debate on the reduction of plastic waste in the marine environment, Goldsmith urged the government to take more than “baby steps” to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. The UK urgently needs a “roadmap toward a genuine zero-waste society”, he said.

And now, on the cups at least, there has been progress: on Tuesday, parliament announced that it will be “drastically” reducing its use of single-use plastics. 

From summer 2018, MPs, visitors and staff will be unable to buy plastic bottles of water from the parliamentary shops, nor refresh themselves with coffee from plastic-lined tumblers. They’ll also have to squeeze their ketchup from refillable dispensers, and pay 25p extra for hot drinks purchased in disposable vessels.

But as the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Mary Creagh MP, has pointed out, the reforms are not something for which the government should receive credit. “Parliament’s action stands in stark contrast to Ministers who consult, announce and re-announce, but never seem to do anything to turn back the plastic tide,” she said in a recent press statement.

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Examples of government inaction are many. In March, Theresa May’s government rejected the EAC’s call for a 25p “latte levy” on takeaway cups to be rolled out nationwide; UK recycling policy is so haphazard that even within London it varies from borough to borough; and while retailers have promised to remove ‘problematic or unnecessary’ non-recyclable plastic by 2025, their pledges are currently unenforceable by law.

For Luca Bonaccorsi, a director at the Marine Conservation Society, the ambition should instead be for a “circular” system, where recycling is so widespread that there is almost no need for any new plastic to be created. This should include financial incentives to encourage producers to use recycled materials and to dissuade consumers from buying single-use items.

Yet even then, there is still the question of what do to about all the plastic already clogging up the ocean? Not to mention the places in the world where there is as yet no system of waste collection at all?

So perhaps there should also be support for more research – into developing the plastic-eating mutant enzymes discovered in Japan? Or creating a robotic “Wall-E” to hoover it all up? Solutions like these may sound extreme – but so is the extent of the plastics challenge.

In fact the heightened political focus on plastics may be part of the problem itself. Of all the many issues raised by the latest Blue Planet series – from over-fishing to climate-change – plastic-pollution is the one British politicians have seized upon. Why? Possibly because the other problems require even greater levels of government intervention (and are less easily blamed on the consumers’ lazy, litter-bug behaviour).

As the MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael, observed at the opening of the latest discussions in Westminster Hall; “Another week, another debate on plastics in the marine environment.”

So perhaps plastic is a useful symbol for the Conservative’s green policy after all – not as sign of success, but of its timidity.

Just this week, the European Commission has announced that it is referring the UK to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), over our illegally high levels of air-pollution. The government has already lost to ClientEarth lawyers in UK courts over this issue – three times – and the House of Lords is clearly worried about this wider, all-bark-and-no-bite attitude. This week they inflicted their 15th defeat of the government’s Brexit bill, this time for its lack of a body to enforce the environmental principles that currently exist under EU law.

Keeping green policy voluntary and optional could help protect the government from costly lawsuits, but it won’t help protect our seas.  And while they may provide handy photo opportunities for Michael Gove, the plastics-problem won’t be solved with re-useable cups alone.

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