One cannot have missed the increasing concern surrounding waste plastic in the last few months and weeks. The good news is that the first step towards solving a problem is to recognise it as an issue in the first place, and it seems that this ongoing environmental crisis is now starting to get the publicity it needs.
The scale of the problem
The bad news is that the more articles appear on the subject, the more it becomes clear that the problem is even bigger than first realised. As recently reported by Sky News, a lot of the UK’s plastic waste is recorded as recycled when it is exported, regardless of what actually happens to it when it reaches its destination. This issue is only likely to worsen as China, previously the recipient of two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste, was due to ban imports of waste plastic as of January 2018.
With the national average recycling rate having stalled at 43% and even the fate of plastic which is exported for recycling uncertain, it is clear that we have to produce fewer single-use plastic items. According to the BBC, 480 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold globally in 2016 and given that each bottle will take around 450 years to biodegrade, production of these items is far outstripping our ability to dispose of them.
As with single-use plastic bags, changing public behaviours will be key to solving the problem. Though businesses and public buildings in the UK are already legally obliged to offer free drinking water, popping in and asking for a refill for your reusable water bottle can feel a bit cheeky if you are not buying anything else.
Fortunately, there is a growing initiative, spearheaded by a group called City to Sea in Bristol which aims to set up free refill stations nationwide. The Refill campaign already has 1,600 drinking water stations across the country which you can locate using the Refill app. Now Water UK have joined the campaign with a view to widening the network to include tens of thousands of high street shops and cafes by 2021. Crucially, the scheme will make it clear that people are welcome to refill their bottles via window stickers and a location marker on the Refill app.
The plastic bag tax demonstrated that uptake of single-use plastic items can be successfully discouraged. After a five pence tax on thin-gauge plastic shopping bags was introduced in October 2015, their use dropped by over 85% in six months. A similar tax on all single-use plastics (including packaging and take-away cartons) is being considered by the Treasury, whilst a plastic bottle deposit scheme has also been suggested. This could see around 20 pence added to the cost of drinks sold in disposable plastic bottles, which would then be refunded when the bottle was returned to the point of sale for recycling.
Germany introduced just such a scheme in 2002 and it has since helped them achieve the highest rates of polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottle returns and recycling in the world, with rates of 97-98% being reported. In addition to this, 80% of Germany’s recycling is done domestically, avoiding the kind of uncertainty which currently surrounds the fate of Britain’s exported waste plastic.
In combination with a wider, well-advertised network of refill points, a tax or deposit scheme could be the mechanism for effecting the genuine change in consumer habits necessary to stem production of single-use plastic bottles.
Smell the coffee
There are other areas, however, where eliminating single-use plastic is not proving as straight forward. A recent proposal to apply a similar levy – dubbed the latté levy – on single-use coffee cups has not been well received by the industry.
Disposable coffee cups are clearly an issue as, despite being mostly paper, they have a polyethylene lining to make them waterproof. Currently, there are just three recycling plants in the UK that can separate the paper from the plastic lining, clearly not enough when 2.5 billion disposable cups are used every year in the UK. In fact, only 1% of disposable coffee cups are ever recycled.
As with bottled water, swapping single-use containers for reusable mugs would seem to present a way forward and moves are already being made to reward customers for using them. This month, Pret A Manger announced it was doubling the discount it offers on hot drinks for customers who bring their own mug, from 25p to 50p. Even whilst levies on disposable coffee cups remain at the proposal stage, evidence suggests that consumers are already changing their habits with sales of barista-standard reusable cups reaching a quarter of a million in the UK in the last three months of 2017 alone.
It is important that all aspects of the industry are keeping up to date with the potentially rapid shift in consumer behaviour. United Baristas have identified planning law as a particular area where legislation is seemingly at odds with the move towards more environmentally friendly practices.
It turns out that a lot of coffee shops in the busiest ‘A1’ sites are subject to planning laws requiring at least 50% of their sales to be of products consumed off site. Measures to reduce the number of single-use cups, such as the 25 pence levy could impact take-out sales, and lead to a higher percentage of customers sitting in. Ultimately, this could put some coffee shops in breach of planning regulations, putting the business at risk. The irony here is that the higher the percentage of take-away coffees a shop currently sells, the less likely they are to find themselves in breach of the law – so the worst contributors to the disposable cup problem get off most lightly.
Clearly, all aspects of consumer behaviour have to be examined and factored in to any changes in the law. But what can we do as individuals to speed up the rate of change and make a difference to the plastic waste epidemic?
Well, since it seems that since much of the plastic exported for recycling is not actually recycled, and the facilities do not exist on the scale required to deal with the number of disposable coffee cups we use, simply putting your waste in the right bin may not be the answer – we have to use fewer of these items. Get a reusable water bottle, get a reusable coffee cup with a lid, and buy fewer products with unnecessary packaging. We can talk all day about changing consumer behaviour but at the end of the day, those consumers are us, and our individual actions make a difference.
For the most committed amongst us, there are also ongoing initiatives that you can join to help clean up the plastic that already contaminates our beaches. The Marine Conservation Society, for example, runs regular Beachwatch beach cleaning events up and down the country, so find your nearest event, don your wellies, and get involved.
Matthew Pavli is writing for Aqua Cure. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue