Common Seas: Plastic, green policies, and the 2024 election



Circular Online speaks to Carla Worth, Policy Lead at Common Seas, about plastic, policies ahead of the election, and if legislation is needed to drive the green transition.

  1. If you could only pick one policy, what would you like to see the next government implement?

Carla Ward
Carla Ward, Policy Lead at Common Seas.

If the government succeeds in implementing an ambitious Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, it can act as a framework for other plastic production policies.

As the policy pushes responsibility upstream to manufacturers and (ideally) makes every organisation in the value chain accountable for the entire product lifecycle, it prompts producers to make decisions about the design of their products based on how it will act at the end of its life.

Instead of focusing on cheap, single-use plastic takeaway coffee cups, for example, an EPR scheme may incentivise a business to trial a reuse scheme where the business owns reuseable coffee cups that consumers return, in turn reducing the need for raw materials as well as facilitating a circular economy.

By minimising waste and maximising the use of resources by keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, reuse closes the loop on consumption and production cycles.

An effective EPR can provide funding mechanisms for the development of infrastructure for a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), including the necessary collection, sorting, and processing facilities required for DRS implementation.

Producers may contribute financially to the establishment and maintenance of DRS infrastructure as part of their EPR obligations.

  1. What are your thoughts on the EPR scheme in its current form? What would you change?

The current EPR scheme, firstly, lacks effective implementation. Whilst a phased-in approach has been deemed necessary by the government, it is because the scheme fails to contain clear rules and effective timelines.

The transition from the Packaging Waste Regulations to EPR reflects a commitment to the producer-pays principle, aiming to ensure that producers bear the full cost of packaging recovery and recycling. However, the journey has been marked by setbacks and complexities.

One of the main setbacks revolves around data collection for EPR, with stakeholders expressing concerns about the system’s complexity and the extent of data producers are required to submit.

The lack of clarity regarding producer fees calculation, recycling targets, and scheme administration adds to the frustration. Moreover, the current data reporting system developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has faced technical difficulties and usability issues, complicating the process further.

I would urge the current government to address the fundamental issues causing setbacks in implementation, such as clarity, simplicity, and consistency in data collection. Calls for a simpler and more transparent approach, as well as the need for a clear timeline for collections consistency, highlight the importance of refining the current framework.

Despite the frustration and lack of trust stemming from the implementation process, there remains widespread support for the underlying principles of EPR. Our government must act quickly before this support diminishes.

  1. A recent survey shows 68% of the public support interventions to reduce single-use plastic packaging compared to only 49% of MPs. What do you think is the reason for this disconnect between the opinions of the public and MPs?

It is important to note that public interest and political priorities can vary widely, but there are policymakers who actively champion environmental causes, including plastic reduction.

However, policymakers, particularly in an election year, are possibly more focused on short-term goals that yield immediate results and are visible to their constituents. Plastic reduction policies may be perceived as long-term initiatives with results that may not be immediately apparent. 

Furthermore, implementing plastic reduction methods such as EPR, DRS and offering grants for reuse and refill schemes can be costly, despite their substantial impact. When external influences dominate the budget, such as inflation or, as we have seen in recent times, pandemics and wars, these initiatives fall to the bottom of the list.

For the public, we are not only witnessing the rise in consumer awareness on issues relating to the environment but also the role of social media when talking about influencing the public on plastic pollution.

It only takes a brief scroll of the “plastic” hashtag to see beaches and rivers lined with devastating pollution. This arguably has played a significant role in educating and mobilising the public on the issue of plastic pollution. 

As such, we see a disconnect between the public who want to see environmental change, and politicians who are prioritising short-term wins and therefore are inconsistent in committing to substantial policy changes. 

  1. What are your thoughts on the direction of the UN Plastic Treaty Negotiations?

The process to create a robust Treaty is a challenge and at the last round of negotiations, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered delegates from Pacific Island countries by twelve to one.

Not only does this highlight the relationship between climate change and plastic production, but it also reinforces calls for leaders from small island developing states (SIDS) to hold more of a platform at negotiations.

With a combined voting power of 20%, the influence of SIDS is huge. Furthermore, as these countries are stewards of 30% of the world’s oceans, they are disproportionately affected by ocean plastic waste that ends up on their shores.

It would be reassuring to see larger nations unite behind calls from SIDS for a robust treaty that focuses on issues which disproportionately affect island states. This includes addressing the transboundary nature of plastic pollution, for example through regional cooperation and multi-donor initiatives.

Furthermore, the treaty should also look to tackle the high levels of plastic waste generated by tourism and develop effective waste management solutions for SIDS, financed by plastic producers.

  1. Where do you see the balance between using plastic as a material for good against it damaging the environment? What does this look like in a perfect world?

Plastic has many use-cases and has infiltrated almost every part of our lives. The initial focus should be on reducing our reliance on the kinds of plastic items we see most commonly littering our environment. One such plastic item is plastic beverage bottles.

One method of reducing single-use plastic water bottles, for example, is the installation of water refill stations in public areas, to allow citizens access to free (or low-cost) potable water.

Alternatively, public sector buildings or local businesses should also be encouraged or required to refill water bottles for free upon request. Studies have also shown that water refill schemes can reduce plastic beverage bottle waste by as much as 35%.

However, not all plastic that litters our environment is as easily identifiable as plastic bottles; in fact, most ends up as fragments and microplastics, so we cannot identify the source. Plus, in some situations, plastics cannot yet be completely eliminated.

For these cases, comprehensive policies such as EPR can help to integrate plastic products into a circular economy, where materials are reused, recycled, or repurposed. EPR can help finance effective recycling systems, and innovations in recycling technologies would make it easier to transform plastic waste into valuable resources.

An effective DRS, which places a small deposit on a plastic drink container, would help to incentivise consumers to return packaging to get back their deposit. Not only does this boost circularity, and decrease the need for virgin plastic, but it also helps to reduce plastic litter.

  1. What business model innovations, such as refill or refuse schemes, need to be scaled and widely implemented as soon as possible?

Reuse and refill policies must be scaled to help businesses move away from single-use products. Reuse can be a more comprehensive system, specifically designed for multiple rotations of packaging that is owned by a business and loaned to the consumer.

Alternatively, refill practices involve packaging that is owned by the consumer and refilled either in refill dispensing stores or at home with concentrates.

There are many different contexts for reuse, some of which are much easier to develop and can be prioritised right away. For example, in closed environments such as campuses, hotels, hospitals, sporting or music events, where the packaging is consumed and discarded on-site, developing a reuse system is straightforward.

In open environments, where packaging is typically discarded at a different location to where it was purchased, it is more difficult, but not impossible. Recently several business partnerships have gained attention for their focus on reuse and refill.

For example, the leadership shown by Marks and Spencer in implementing refill trials has demonstrated that refill schemes can effectively minimise packaging waste in supermarkets.

To ensure success, and to create large-scale reuse and refill schemes, businesses need support from the government. This could come through economic incentives and/or disincentives such as tax subsidies, as well as national standards and design requirements that clarify reuse labelling, health and safety standards, and packaging standardisation to help businesses.

  1. Do you see a green transition only coming from regulatory and legislative changes or can volunteer actions from businesses make a meaningful impact?

Both approaches play crucial roles in driving plastic reduction. Regulations and laws set by governments establish standards and guidelines for businesses and individuals.

Enforcement of these regulations ensures that environmental considerations are taken seriously and that harmful practices are curtailed. They also create a level playing field by establishing common standards for all businesses. This prevents a race to the bottom where some companies might choose to prioritise cost-cutting over sustainable practices.

However, many businesses voluntarily adopt sustainable practices and technologies, driving innovation in green technologies and products. This innovation often leads to more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions. 

In an ideal scenario, regulatory frameworks provide a foundation for environmental protection, while voluntary actions from businesses amplify the positive impact. Moreover, voluntary actions can also influence the creation of new regulations.

When businesses demonstrate the feasibility and benefits of sustainable practices, policymakers may be inspired to enact legislation that encourages or mandates similar behaviours across industries.

Ultimately, a comprehensive and effective transition to a plastic-free future is more likely when regulatory changes and voluntary actions work in tandem. The collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society can drive a holistic approach to sustainability.

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