A Plastic Tax

After the Chancellor announced an investigation into how the tax system and charges on single-use plastic items could be used to reduce waste, Eunomia’s head of environmental policy and economics, Chris Sherrington, explains how a plastic tax would work to help tackle marine plastic pollution

We know that taxes can be an effective way of reducing consumption of single-use plastics, as dramatically illustrated by Ireland’s plastic bag tax which was implemented in 2002, with lower consumption meaning fewer available to potentially be littered. Coffee cups and other single-use takeaway cups are leading candidates for a similar form of taxation, which should be visible to the consumer, and applied at the point of sale.

However, for some items, taxes aren’t the best approach, and other economic instruments, or regulatory measures, should instead be used. For example, for single-use beverage containers, a deposit-return scheme would be the best way to significantly reduce littering, and increase recycling of bottles (and indeed cans). For plastic straws and stirrers, a deposit return scheme wouldn’t work, but rather than put a tax in place, it might be simpler to just ban them.

While the waste prevention effects of a tax or a charge would be the same, in principle, and certainly from the Treasury’s perspective, a tax would be preferable. A tax would avoid the risks – that could occur with a charge – that funds disbursed by retailers displace CSR spending, and lead to undue influence over recipients, who themselves might become overly dependent upon the proceeds of the charge, potentially limiting their support for high ambition in respect of waste and litter prevention.

Importantly, ‘recyclables’ should not, as suggested by some, be exempt from any tax or other economic instrument. Plastic bottles, for example, are fully ‘recyclable’, but this characteristic is not sufficient to lead to the kind of end-of-life management that we should be aspiring to achieve.

Finally, one thing that should be avoided is any attempt to ring-fence money raised to cover costs associated with waste management. It has been suggested, for example, that money raised from a coffee cup charge should be used to fund collection infrastructure for coffee cup recycling. To do so would mean undermining the principle of extended producer responsibility, whereby producers should bear the full end of life costs for management of their waste, including that which is littered. The income raised from a measure designed to change consumer behaviour, and reduce consumption, and thus littering of specific single-use plastic items should not be used to cover costs that producers should themselves bear.

These measures do not, in and of themselves, represent a comprehensive approach to addressing marine plastic pollution. Such an approach needs also to address the problem of items associated with fishing and aquaculture, as well as the multiple sources of microplastics, including flows from vehicle tyres, pellet spills, synthetic textiles, artificial sports turf, and paints to name a few.

In short, the problem is significant and will only progressively worsen without action not just from the UK, but from all nations. We hope that the UK can develop a suite of coherent measures which drive progress in this regard and rescue our oceans from the terrible fate that – without comprehensive action – they seem destined to suffer.


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