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The UK uses 3.3m tonnes of plastic packaging every year, well above the EU average

Exeter expert backs calls for bold national Plastic Packaging Plan to help protect oceans

One of the world’s foremost experts in microplastics research has backed calls for a bold new national policy framework to help reduce the amount of ocean plastic pollution.

Professor Tamara Galloway from the University of Exeter has given her support to a new report, published today (February 12), calling for a new coherent plastics policy for the UK.

The report, called Plastics Packaging Plan: Achieving Net Zero ‘Waste’ Exports and produced by the think-tank Policy Connect, outlines how the UK must urgently take back control of its share of the global plastics problem.

Backed by 12 cross-party politicians, it calls for the implementation of new policies so UK plastic becomes a circular industrial resource, rather than exportable waste or environmental pollution. The report contains 18 policy recommendations needed to develop a national Plastic Packaging Plan by 2030.

The report has been backed by Professor Galloway, whose research into the devastating impact microplastic pollution could have on the health of humans and marine wildlife has won a series of prestigious national awards. Her team are currently working with circular economy expert Professor Peter Hopkinson from the University of Exeter Business school on a £1 million EPSRC funded  programme called EXEMPLAR: the Exeter Multidisciplinary Hub for Plastics Research

Tamara, a Professor of Ecotoxicology at Exeter, said: “Our research has shown the widespread impacts that plastic litter can have on marine life and on the food chain. This proposal is a most welcome step towards tackling the problem. By taking systematic action to create a more circular economy for plastic, we can make better use of this great resource and keep the oceans cleaner at the same time.”

The key findings of the report include:

  • The UK uses 3.3m tonnes of plastic packaging every year, well above the EU average. Between 2010-17, the UK exported 4.15m metric tonnes of plastic packaging ‘waste’, enough to fill Wembley stadium 26 times.
  • Government must accelerate a radical and circular UK plastics plan policy, to cut plastic use (especially virgin plastic) and set clear policy targets, including a zero-export of plastic packaging ‘waste’ by 2030.
  • As China closes its ports to low quality UK recyclates, we need three times UK recycling infrastructure and jobs to handle this problem.
  • UK producers of plastic waste must urgently rethink packaging design, boost their recycling leadership ambition and innovation and drive greater demand for UK recyclates in UK production.
  • Government, producers and retailers must make packaging simpler and easier for consumers to recycle.
  • The government must set clear and bold targets for all local authorities; a dedicated Plastic Packaging Taskforce at the Environment Agency; and the National Infrastructure Committee (NIC) must urgently look at planning barriers to new recycling infrastructure.

The UK enjoys one of most proactive recycling regimes in the world which produces an estimated 3.5million tonnes of recyclable plastic packaging waste every year. However, UK local authorities have developed diverse approaches to recycling, which can often be confusing for consumers.

Furthermore, because of the lack of investment in recycling and re-processing infrastructure, waste-to-energy facilities and policy incentives, the UK currently exports two thirds of this to other countries – 4.15m metric tonnes over the past seven years; enough to fill Wembley stadiums 26 times, roughly 4.3 stadiums per year.

Exporting waste not only increases greenhouse gas emissions from shipping but increases the volumes of UK plastic ending up in landfill or in oceans on the other side of the world. A ‘zero export’ policy for used plastic packaging would save the equivalent CO2 emissions from shipping as taking 45,000 cars off the road every year.

China’s recent import ban on plastic waste has driven UK waste exports to countries like Malaysia (17%), Turkey (16%), Poland (12%) and Indonesia (11%). Many countries currently reprocessing our rubbish have lower worker welfare standards, weaker health and safety regulations, and weaker environmental protection than the UK.

While the report’s findings stop short of calling for a ban on exports, it says the UK would benefit politically, economically, socially and environmentally from prioritising domestic processing over export. UK consumers want to do more for the environment so government must make it easier for local authorities to help them recycle more. The UK has the specialist innovation and skills to lead the global waste management sector.

Jacob Ainscough, author of the new Policy Connect report said: “Our oceans and their marine life are in crisis. Bolder UK regulations on packaging waste must deliver zero-export in UK plastic packaging by 2030. Our market-based recommendations in this report are backed by cross-party and business support and show that our environment and economy have much to gain from a radical, circular national plastic policy.”

Welcoming the new report, The Rt Hon Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, says, “Britain is a proud, responsible, ‘can do’ nation which looks to the future. We welcome the government’s forthcoming consultation on its ambitious Resources and Waste Strategy. The right policy roadmap can turn our plastic waste problem into an economic opportunity for the UK to lead the world in waste-processing, recycled plastic, and waste-to-energy innovation and jobs.”

Date: 12 February 2019