UK mulls single-use plastic tax

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

UK government could introduce tax on single use plastics ©iStock
UK government could introduce tax on single use plastics ©iStock
The UK government has launched a consultation on approaches to reducing plastic waste, with fiscal measures including a tax on single-use plastics on the agenda.

In the Spring Statement yesterday (13 March) Chancellor Phillip Hammond targeted disposable plastic items, like coffee cups, plastic cutlery and foam trays. The Treasury said it is “seeking views​” on how the taxation system can be used to encourage the “responsible use​” of plastic.

Specifically, the government said it wants to understand how “further economic incentives​” can be leveraged to reduce the unnecessary production of single-use plastic as well as increasing reuse and improving recycling rates.

Detailing the plan, Hammond, said: “We must take bold action to become a world leader in tackling the scourge of single-use plastic littering our streets, countryside and coastline.”

The scope of the consultation covers the entire supply chain, from production and retail to consumption and disposal. “This will ensure that any action taken is effective and does not introduce unintended consequences,”​ the consultation document noted.

The call for evidence and subsequent policy decisions could see an outcome similar to the 5p charge introduced for the use of plastic carrier bags in the UK. According to the the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, since this levy was brought in the use of single-use carrier bags has fallen by more than 80%. 

Plastic bag use plunges

Since 5 October 2015, large retailers in England have been required by law to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags.

According to Defra data, the UK's seven "main retailers" issued around 83% fewer bags (over 6bn bags fewer) in 2016 to 2017 compared to the calendar year 2014. This would be equivalent to each person in the population using around 25 bags during 2016 to 2017, compared to around 140 bags a year before the charge.

Innovation funding boost

The Treasury also suggested that “some​” of the revenue raised by any new tax will be used to support innovation.

This will join £20m (€22.6m) in funding from existing budgets that will be allocated to back businesses and universities researching how to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment.

The Food and Drink Federation welcomed this funding boost for research and development.

“We… welcome the opportunity to contribute to the government’s public consultation process and welcome the launch of the innovation fund to develop the technologies and appropriate approaches to reduce plastic waste,”​ Helen Munday, chief science officer at the industry body, noted.

Nevertheless, Munday also stressed the importance of plastic packaging in preserving food quality. “It is vital that these innovations and other actions take full account of the important role of plastics in protecting and preserving food products throughout the food and drink supply chain. Plastics have become an integral part of ensuring food safety and help to prevent and minimise food waste, and those roles must be filled to ensure a safe, affordable, and sustainable food and drink value chain,”​ she stressed.

The British Retail Consortium, which represents UK supermarkets, said the industry recognises the need to act on plastic pollution. “It is what customers want,” ​BRC CEO Helen Dickinson observed.

However, she cautioned: “All plastic packaging items are already 'taxed' when used under producer responsibility measures. Rather than introduce a second system, the current system could be reformed. Any new tax should have a clear intended outcome. For example, increasing the costs of products is unlikely to result in positive consumer behaviour change.”

Reduce, reuse or​ recycle?

Does a greater focus need to be placed on recycling rates?
Does a greater focus need to be placed on recycling rates?

As the consultation gets underway, it would appear that industry and environmental groups are preparing to face-off over the emphasis placed on the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle.

The BRC’s Dickinson argued the government’s plastics policy needs to be part of a broader approach that delivers on circular economy objectives.

“We need a comprehensive strategy which considers all materials and resources and sets out how the government intends to shift to a circular economy where all resources are valued and reused when possible,”​ she suggested.

Richard Kirkman, chief technology officer at waste solutions provider Veolia, stressed that more can be done to increase recycling rates.

“Whilst looking into new types of packaging for tomorrow we must at the same time remember that a vast proportion of plastic we already use today is recyclable yet we are not capturing it through the recycling process. Over 5bn plastic bottles that can easily be recycled are not even re-entering the supply chain.”

Kirkman said that this can in part be addressed by increasing investment in infrastructure to improve recycling rates. “More plastic needs to be collected and manufacturers need to use recycled content in their products… With the right policy conditions; manufacturers, consumers and the recycling industry can collectively start a new recycling revolution."

In contrast, environmental groups have focused on the need to reduce overall plastic usage.

Greenpeace UK senior political adviser Rebecca Newsom said that the plastic bag charge is proof positive that a “smart tax”​ on plastic can be effective and stressed the need to cut the amount of plastic produced.

“The main problem with single-use plastic is that we produce far too much of it in the first place. That’s why, as well as charges, the government should introduce measures to fundamentally reduce the amount of plastic waste being produced and sold,”​ she argued.

“There should be more pressure on supermarkets and food giants to cut down the amount of throwaway plastic they put in circulation, and it should go hand in hand with a UK-wide deposit-return scheme for all drinks containers that can boost collection rates.”

Related topics: Sustainability, Policy

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