The actions of environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion, which brought much of central London to a standstill over the Easter weekend, have again brought environmentalism into sharp focus.
The protests came just a fortnight after the EU announced plans to ban single use plastics by 2021 and a few months after the British Government launched a series of public consultations relating to plastics and curbing its environmental impact.
AAT has thought long and hard about what role we can play in reducing plastic usage as an organisation, amongst our membership and via our ongoing engagement with policymakers.
Early on, AAT recognised there is much that can be done not just by producers and the general public but by the wider business community. In other words, this is not simply any issue for the public and plastics producers, businesses across the board need to make more responsible choices in this area. AAT, like an increasing number of businesses, has removed almost all single-use plastics from its offices. Whilst Government legislation in this area may be useful, there is nothing to stop businesses acting now.
That said, AAT has achieved some welcome cut through in the political world too. Of the 160,000+ responses to last year’s Government consultation on tackling the plastics problem in the UK, the AAT response was singled out for praise in the House of Lords as offering a number of helpful proposals to reduce the use of single-use plastics by encouraging the development of alternatives and penalising the use of single-use plastic through taxation, charges, and behaviour change.
But we did not stop there. Whilst backing recent Government plans for a Plastic Packaging Tax and a Deposit Return Scheme, we have been clear that both have significant shortcomings that must be addressed to ensure success.
Plastic Packaging Tax
Plastic packaging accounts for 44% of plastic used in the UK, but 67% of plastic waste. Over 2 million tonnes of plastic packaging is used in the UK every year, the vast majority of which is made from new, not recycled, plastic.
The Government has confirmed that from April 2022 it will introduce a new tax on the production and import of plastic packaging and has initially proposed this will apply to all packaging with less than 30% recycled content.
AAT does not believe the 30% recycled content threshold is sufficiently ambitious and certainly cannot be considered “world leading” as the Government has repeatedly suggested.
There is a wealth of international evidence to suggest other countries are going further and when so many large companies have already committed to doing the same, it is clear that a higher threshold is needed.
That’s why AAT has suggested a threshold of 40%, with a further increase to 50% in 2030 to ensure momentum is not lost. This “roadmap” type approach would genuinely ensure the UK was at the forefront of tackling the plastics problem and remains so for the foreseeable future.
Government has suggested that small producers be exempted from the tax but proposals here are too complicated and cover companies that are still sizeable. As a result, AAT has suggested that only organisations operating below the VAT threshold (currently £85,000) should be excluded from this tax. The VAT threshold is already a widely recognised and understood threshold, so this should help maximise compliance too.
Deposit Return Scheme (DRS)
The DRS for drinks bottles and cans will see the cost of the deposit added to the price of drinks but repaid when consumers return their empty drinks containers to a designated returns point.
AAT, like government, believes this will significantly increase recycling and reduce littering.
However, some of AAT’s licensed members, who have small newsagents and the like as clients, will know that the impact of a deposit return scheme may not be entirely positive for small businesses.
A lack of storage space for returned items represents a very real and pressing problem for some. Likewise, if significant numbers of items are returned at the same time, this could potentially impact on the effective running of the small business, given queues and the time taken to deal with returns.
On the other hand, it could also lead to increased business through higher footfall and the handling fee would represent an extra revenue stream for shopkeepers. Furthermore, as a key source of the sale of many of these items, it is important that newsagents and convenience stores play some part in the successful operation of the scheme.
AAT has suggested one way of reducing the negative impacts on these small businesses – grant an exemption to the DRS if the small store can demonstrate that an alternative collection point is available within a certain short distance of their store, say 400 metres.
Other recommendations include opting for a deposit that is meaningful. In Norway 10p (small bottles) and 25p (large bottles) is paid for returned items and appears to be successful whereas in Germany a flat rate of 25CT per item is paid.
Iceland (the retailer not the country) is currently trialling a 10p deposit return scheme which appears to have been successful but should be noted that their customers are likely to be more price conscious than say Waitrose or Marks & Spencer customers.
In setting a fixed, national rate for deposits it should be sufficiently high to encourage behaviour change in all sectors of society. A 10p-20p deposit does not appear unreasonable and given the commitment to substantially reduce litter and increase recycling rates, AAT has suggested opting for a figure towards the higher end of this range.
Whether making changes yourself as a consumer or as a business, pressing for political change via traditional methods or the more extreme approach of Extinction Rebellion, we all want the same thing – a reduction in the scourge of plastic so that environmental damage is reduced, money saved, and our children’s future looks a little bit brighter.
AAT will continue to work with law firms, environmental charities and a range of politicians from across the political divide to do our bit, it’s never been more important that you also do yours.
Phil Hall is AAT's Head of Public Affairs and Public Policy.