The Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, may have opened his speech at the recent Conservative Party Conference with a characteristically light-hearted joke about recycling, but the main thrust of the speech was an examination of some of the most serious environmental problems with which Britain is currently faced. One of the key messages which stood out was a clear commitment to reducing the nation’s plastic pollution, with Gove announcing a call for evidence for a new bottle deposit scheme in England.
Other government policies to tackle plastic
The Government has already made good headway on tackling the vast quantities of plastic which end up strewn across the country, and circulating in our surrounding seas. In October 2015, English supermarket shoppers saw the introduction of the plastic bag charge, which has resulted in a drop in their use of over 9 billion units – equivalent to an 83% fall.
Earlier this year Gove followed up an announcement made by his predecessor, the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP, by publishing draft legislation which seeks to ban synthetic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products. And in April, an England-wide ‘Litter strategy’ was created, part of which focuses on how to better ensure plastics are appropriately disposed of – through measures such as better recycling education in schools, and appraising how changes to bin collections may alter recycling rates.
The bottle deposit scheme
The emphasis on plastic bottles is not without good reason. Indeed, figures suggest that one third of all plastic deposited into our seas is beverage litter. For comparison, plastic bags and microbeads each constitute only one percent of total plastic marine debris. What’s more is that solving plastic bottle pollution also appears far more achievable relative to other pressing environmental issues.
A bottle deposit scheme works by incentivising people to recycle used bottles, rather than simply throwing them away once they are empty. A small levy – perhaps 10 to 30 pence – is charged on each bottle purchased, which is then refunded upon return of that bottle. The bottles are then crushed and sent off to be turned into brand new plastic products.
While England actually has rather robust recycling infrastructure within the household domain, the gap in facilities tends to occur outside of the home. Coupled with an ‘on the go’ culture – particularly with regards to food and drink – some individuals find it challenging to appropriately dispose of litter. Indeed, learning how to address this fact forms one line of enquiry of the consultation which the Government recently opened out to the public.
Internationally, only a handful of countries have bottle deposit schemes, but those which do tend to enjoy elevated levels of recycling. In Germany, for example, their polyethylene terephthalate bottle deposit scheme boasts a 98.5% recycling rate – which dwarfs the UK’s current performance, where only 57% of plastic bottles are eventually recycled. Over the border in Scotland, the First Minister, the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP, recently confirmed to the Scottish Parliament her intention to do more to support recycling and the circular economy, in part through the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme.
The environmental impact
The consequences of plastic pollution can be devastating for the natural environment. For wildlife, there is the clear danger that they will ingest plastic believing it to be food, as well as becoming entangled within it. Globally, over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals – such as dolphins, whales and seals – die from plastic pollution each year. Indeed, speaking at the recent Our Oceans Conference, Prince Charles spoke of his “mounting despair” with respect to plastic pollution and the impact which it is having on marine environments.
But for humans, too, plastic in our seas can also pose health risks. Of particular danger for human populations are microplastics, which can find their way into our oceans through accidental spills of ‘nurdles’ (the raw plastic pellets which are shipped around the world for manufacture), microbeads, and as the result of the breakdown of macroplastics – e.g. bags and bottles. Where plastic is most hazardous to humans is when it enters into the food chain. One study, for instance, found that the average European who eats seafood will ingest over 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Recycling plastic bottles not only helps the environment through reducing pollution, but also in the way that doing so saves on energy and resources in production, as well as conserving landfill space. It takes 75% less energy to make a bottle from recycled plastic rather than ‘virgin’ material, for instance, and diverting a tonne of plastic away from landfill can save 7.4 cubic yards of space. Reuse of plastic helps create a more resource-efficient economy too, with significant potential cost savings for business.
Other positive consequences of bottle deposit schemes which have been touted include the potential for diminished costs for councils – as there will be less litter and household recycling to collect – and an improved, tidier, more beautiful public realm. In purely fiscal terms, one report calculates that savings to local authorities in England alone could be anywhere between £35 million to £56 million per annum.
At a time when the focus of the political world is fixed largely on the issues of Brexit, under Gove’s leadership Defra has been quietly and consistently churning out practical policies which in time will lead to demonstrable improvements in our nation’s natural environment. The precise configuration of a bottle deposit scheme will undoubtedly be vital to whether it succeeds at tackling plastic pollution. However, the evidence from other countries suggests it could certainly be a step in the right direction to a less polluted world.
Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue