Two years after the government banned plastic straws, cotton buds and microbeads in some beauty products in England, Thérèse Coffey is set to ban single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups. That means possibly 1.1bn plates and 4.25bn items of cutlery in England will no longer be made each year.
That sounds impressive, as if the environment secretary is getting on top of the plastics that are used only once but last for centuries, breaking down into innumerable tiny pieces and polluting rivers and seas in the process. But the new ban barely scratches the surface of a problem that has been known about for decades and is now out of control.
Not only has Coffey been shamed into taking action by the Scottish and Welsh governments, which both moved last year on plastic waste, but the English ban mysteriously appears to apply only to plastic used in takeaway outlets and not in supermarkets or shops.
There are few pollutants more insidious – or urgent to tackle – than plastic. Micro-plastics extend from ocean trenches to mountain tops. Plastic is found in human bodies and the food we eat, and it literally rains down on people and animals. But the ban is too narrow in its scope. It won’t cover single-use plastic water bottles, makes no mention of plastic bags and does not even try to control the burning of plastic waste in incinerators. There is still no deposit return scheme for drinks containers and no crackdown on the export of plastic waste to poorer countries.
“A plastic fork can take 200 years to decompose,” trumpeted Coffey when announcing the ban. Yet by the time the new law is passed, it will have taken about 18 months of consultation, numerous environment secretaries and immense public pressure just to achieve this minimal advance. At this rate it will take more than 200 years to stop plastic pollution altogether.
Clearly the government has little intention of acting comprehensively anytime soon. There is no financial incentive for catering or fast-food companies to switch out of single-use plastic and nothing to encourage the catering industry or households to recycle more. Local authorities are not to be helped in any way to clean up the plastic that litters beaches or roadside verges. There will be no curb on the production of single-use plastic, only of certain ill-defined items in selective places. It seems like the legislation will be full of loopholes.
Quite simply, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, plagued by claims of inaction and delay over sewage being pumped into English waterways and hammered for its slow and weak air pollution targets, has been politically embarrassed enough to introduce minimal legislation that will give the impression of taking action. Undermined by an ideological commitment to let big industry do what it likes, it has picked on fast-food outlets, many of which provide cheap food, and framed plastic waste as litter created by the public. The real problem is the production of plastic by an immensely powerful global petrochemical industry that produces the materials to make the world’s plastics.
Plastic has been on an unstoppable roll for 70 years. Unrestrained by governments, the petrochemical industry is bucking the global recession and building vast new plastic plants, such as a giant new Shell plant in Pennsylvania, to create lucrative new markets for populations in industrialising countries. Today, the fossil fuel industry relies on profits from plastic to offset expected future losses from a transition to renewable energy.
The scale of plastic pollution, especially in the marine environment, is now huge, though well known to governments. Roughly half of all plastic goes to single-use items, of which about 40% is packaging. Yet under 10% is recycled. The shocking fact is that virtually every piece of plastic made still exists in some shape or form, with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated.
Britain took the global lead when it passed its Climate Change Act in 2008. It set up a powerful independent advisory committee and committed to a net zero strategy. It now has the opportunity to lead UN negotiations to pass the first global plastics pollution treaty, intended to eventually reduce plastic production by half.
But it must not wait for UN consensus, which is painfully slow to achieve and will inevitably be strongly opposed by the fossil fuel lobby. It could take the moral high ground and lead by example. Reining in the plastics industry would cost the public purse nothing, restore confidence in governments’ ability to address these urgent problems, and stop Britain looking like an eco-laggard.
John Vidal is a former Guardian environment editor