What is the solution to single-use plastic?


single-use plastic

Carla Worth, Policy Lead at Common Seas, asks what the solution is to single-use plastic and explores potential options from across Europe.

In January 1960, US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer and explorer Jacques Piccard dived for some five hours to a depth of 10,912 metres into the Mariana Trench.

Marking the location of convergent plate boundaries where two plates collide, the Mariana Trench is the deepest place on Earth.

The Mariana Trench is about as far from the worst excesses of human civilisation as it is possible to get. And yet, in 2018, a plastic bag found its way there – more than 1,000 kilometres from the nearest human settlement. 

How much damage is plastic waste causing?

Plastic pollution

Today, plastic waste is the largest, most harmful, and most persistent type of marine litter, accounting for at least 85% of total marine waste.

Without urgent action, the estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic currently entering the ocean annually, will triple in the next twenty years

Tackling plastic pollution at its source is imperative to mitigate its detrimental impact on the environment and human health.

By addressing the root cause of plastic waste generation, we can prevent its accumulation in landfills, oceans, and ecosystems. 

The UK government has claimed to be a world leader in plastic reduction efforts, yet our leaders simply aren’t prioritising solutions to the plastic problem.

EPR and DRS were promised by the government in 2018, and since then the policies have been delayed multiple times.

The UK Environment Act 2021 includes provisions for a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and reform of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems. Despite the legal mandate for these policies, they have yet to come into effect.

EPR and DRS were promised by the government in 2018, and since then the policies have been delayed multiple times.

Firstly, due to all government resources being redirected to manage COVID-19, then as pressures from the cost-of-living crisis took their toll, the required funds for implementation couldn’t be spared.

Next, the government cited labour shortages and supply chain disruptions, then delays were necessary to keep inflation in check. Most recently, the scheme has now been postponed until 2027.

A reluctant government can always find reasons to delay game-changing policies. As the UK is a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution by 2040, it seems to approve the repeated delays to policies that will significantly reduce single-use plastics.

The government cannot continue to procrastinate on progress – the longer we wait, the higher the price to our environment.

Making the polluter pay through EPR

extended producer responsibility

An ambitious EPR scheme is the embodiment of the “Polluter Pays” principle and can act as the framework for all other plastic reduction policies.

The term “extended” in Extended Producer Responsibility pushes responsibility upstream to manufacturers, making them accountable for the entire product lifecycle, from design through end-of-life.

This “extended” nature of EPR differentiates it from basic waste disposal regulations by connecting design decisions to waste management costs, encouraging manufacturers to design products with the environmental effects in mind.

Extended Producer Responsibility in Belgium

Belgium’s EPR scheme for household packaging waste was implemented in 1994.

Belgium’s EPR scheme for household packaging waste was implemented in 1994 to address a growing waste problem and is considered a model for achieving recycling rates above EU averages.

It owes its success to mandatory recycling and recovery targets that are set by law, and a requirement that all producers of over 300kg of packaging annually must join the non-profit organisation Fost Plus.

Fost Plus handles packaging collection and recycling nationwide on behalf of the industry through curb-side and bring-point systems. To fund the infrastructure, producers pay fees based on volumes and material types.

Utilising a centralised organisation ensures that producers remain responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, from collection to recycling and disposal, by efficiently coordinating these activities.

Belgium also implemented “pay-as-you-throw pricing” which, by charging households and businesses a cost proportionate to the amount of waste they produce, encourages waste reduction, recycling, and composting. This has led to decreased overall waste generation and an increased diversion of materials from landfills.  

Finally, ongoing communication campaigns across Belgium provide information about proper recycling techniques, the benefits of waste reduction, and the environmental impacts of different disposal methods.

These campaigns have helped to foster a culture of sustainability and encourage active participation in waste management efforts. 

How can the UK increase its stagnant recycling rates?

Recycling rates

With a successful EPR system in place, the UK government can then look to expand its waste management policies that increase recycling rates.

This includes implementing a productive DRS. Both EPR and DRS were Conservative Party manifesto commitments in the 2019 general election and the Labour party has signalled a committed to a path towards a zero-waste economy by 2050, indicating a strong political consensus that there is a need for action.

Across all types of packaging, a DRS has the potential to reduce pollution by up to 95%, depending on the types of items, design, and implementation of the scheme. Recent successes have been seen with Lativia’s new DRS which could give a useful blueprint for the UK. 

Latvia’s Deposit Return Scheme 

Latvia’s DRS has seen such consistent and quick success.

Despite the obvious population difference with the UK, Latvia’s newly established scheme draws on more relevant parallels than that of the popular example of Norway, which began in the 1970s. 

Whilst Norway has experienced decades of success and there are useful lessons the UK could learn, the current social, economic, and political times demand examples from a more modern DRS implementation.

One reason Latvia’s DRS has seen such consistent and quick success is because the government swiftly implemented a central DRS operator.

The organisation in charge includes both local and Baltic-wide beverage manufacturers and retailers, and the Baltics’ largest recycler of PET. Once the system operator was appointed, it took only 13 months to set the system live.

The central system operator also has a comprehensive reporting system in place. Due to its efficiency, the operator identified that following the initial introduction of the DRS, containers for alcoholic drinks with a high ABV – a measure of alcoholic strength – were still present in litter surveys.

The expansion of the scheme in January 2023 addressed this insight by incorporating these containers. Furthermore, as a result of regular monitoring, the operator shared that the amount of littering of these containers has significantly decreased showing the success of an effective central operating system.

The expansion of beverage containers accepted in a DRS system encourages returns by making the range of eligible containers simpler for consumers as most packaging then becomes included, in turn boosting recycling rates.

Regular reporting ensures that the scheme is operating effectively and addressing any problems as they arise.

Why is reuse and refill forgotten in the UK?


The UK has embraced, in principle, both DRS and EPR, but has shown less enthusiasm for initiatives that focus on reuse and refill principles.

While many will be familiar with refillable bottles and coffee cups, as many people are beginning to bring their own containers to refill at stores, what constitutes reuse and reuse systems is less clear.

For reuse and refill concepts to have a real impact, we need reuse systems, whereby the packaging is owned by a third party, collected, cleaned, and put back on the shelves for people to use.

Hong Kong has several city-wide reuse projects which exemplify how reuse systems can be successful, with the right public support and infrastructure.

One initiative called Muuse, is a smart reuse system for the on-the-go food and drink sector. Consumers can order a coffee from a business which is supplied in a Muuse cup. This Muuse-owned cup can be returned within 14 days in dedicated Muuse bins located around the city.

This has achieved over 90% return rates with an average return time of just three days, showing the success of third-party-owned containers being loaned to consumers. 

Applying reuse schemes can be complex when faced with public reluctance and logistical challenges. As such, a global guide to reuse system standards and design requirements could assist the UK government in implementing a more comprehensive scheme. 

How can we end single-use plastics?

plastic bottles

All these policies involve fundamentally changing the way we design, consume, and manage products at the end of life while requiring the involvement of numerous stakeholders.

Both DRS and EPR will also be contingent on a powerful database and data monitoring and reporting system. In the past, the UK has been known to be lagging in this space, with outdated reporting systems, making the implementation of these schemes even more difficult. 

This government must urgently implement an effective EPR and DRS, as well as encourage the adoption of large-scale reuse systems.

As a result, the country will finally be able to start reducing the amount of single-use plastics and will be on the path to becoming a leader in circular waste management practices.

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