Waste strategy is a failed Christmas present

The new Waste Resources Strategy paints a fantasy circular economy while avoiding the real issue of how we can use less plastic, writes environment journalist Lucy Siegle

I have been awaiting the publication of the Waste Resources Strategy as a four-year-old waits for Christmas morning. I know, it’s tragic isn’t it? But I have spent this year tracking the extraordinary volumes of plastic waste that hit our lives and have become obsessed with how our moribund recycling system was coping (it isn’t). ‘Wait for the Waste Resources Strategy,’ policymakers told me, virtually with a wink.

So yesterday was filled with anticipation. And I don’t want to spoil it for you, but in present terms it was the equivalent of a book token and a pair of socks that you can only wear ‘after a period of consultation’, which is the recurring catchphrase of the Waste Resources Strategy (WRS).

Mr Gove had clearly forgotten my main present. I’d asked for a Bottle Deposit System (BDS), promised many times over the last 12 months, but this isn’t happening until 2023. That’s more than frustrating when the evidence clearly shows it would effectively capture nearly 100 per cent of the 14 billion plastic bottles we plough through in the UK every day.

A few pages on and I almost got something I wanted: the government will review ‘the effectiveness of the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 by the end of 2020’. I can save them the effort. THEY’RE NOT EFFECTIVE! (you’re welcome). A National Audit Office report this year showed that these notices, which are supposed to accompany plastic packaging as it embarks on a long (and often mysterious) journey toward recycling, are often fatally flawed. Overall the system as it stands means that we citizens shoulder 90 per cent of the cost of collection, sorting and disposal or recycling of the plastic waste that floods our lives, and the brands and retailers just 10 per cent. Reforms will change this but… only after consultation.

They’d better hurry up because someone needs to pay for cash-strapped local authorities to collect more waste, including food waste from bins. You can’t argue with collecting food waste. It’s an emissions nightmare and mixing your old breakfast up with your plastic means that the whole sorry mess gets slung into landfill, preserved for future generations to see how horrible their great grandparents were.

And I honestly think the witches from Macbeth devised our current recycling system. Move 0.5 miles from your home, and there will be a completely different set of bins to the ones you’re used to. Reform is welcome.

But it still doesn’t confront the elephant in the room – or rather the one billion elephants of the equivalent weight of plastic we have produced globally since the commercialisation of the material, 79 per cent of which is still with us in the form of pollution. When are we going to stop consuming so much? This report doesn’t really know.

Plastic on beach
The UK gets through 295 billion plastic items a year. Image Flickr/Vaidehi Shah

The Everyday Plastics report estimates that in the UK we get through 295 billion plastic items (mainly packaging) a year. I want a strategy that shows how next year we halve this, and by 2020 quarter it. Turning the tide on plastic is a numbers game. In the decade from 2002-2012, more plastic was created than at any other time in history. This year the world will unleash around 350 million tonnes of virgin plastic. That’s quite the experiment to conduct on the earth and all the signs are that it will not end well. 

But instead of asserting that the UK would no longer be a clearing house for increasing amounts of virgin plastic made from oil and complex polymers with toxic additives, this strategy follows the yellow brick road towards a ‘circular economy’. This is a buzzy phrase, but my fear is it’s a really posh, clever way of saying ‘subject to further consultation while we use more plastic’.

The strategy reframes our plastic empties (and other waste – it’s not all about plastic, after all) as a resource rather than redundant waste. But not all plastic is a resource, some of it is just frankly unnecessary. To be circular, all our plastic needs to turn into something else. Without rules about the sort of plastics manufacturers can put on the market this gets messy. Coloured plastics often used in sports drinks’ bottles can only be recycled into darker plastics, i.e. black plastic ready-meal trays. The strategy is therefore in danger of leading us to hang on to bothersome plastics just to complete a circle.

“We want to promote UK-based recycling and export less waste to be processed abroad,” reads the strategy cheerfully. I agree, I’d like this too! But let’s not set up a factory in Wigan to make doorstops out of single-use plastic banana holders. We’ll end up with too many doorstops and I definitely don’t want one next Christmas.


Leave a Reply

  1. Agree! All power to your elbow… We need proper action, especially on the bottle deposit scheme. If people can afford to buy bottled water and soft drinks, they can afford a plastic bottle deposit – and if they don’t return the bottle themselves, some other enterprising soul probably will. As for the replacement of plastic packaging with biodegradable alternatives, I gather the technology is all there, but the producers need a push to make it happen. We should all be lobbying for that.

    1. Surely there is a difference between “need” and “want”, as in no-one needs bottled drinks in the UK, our tap water is perfectly potable and our bodies were designed to drink water, not fizzy drinks or juice. It does all come down to education, but how do you teach people not to want things that are so well marketed?

  2. BDS is a no-brainer in my opinion. In the 40s we always returned empty Tizer bottles etc to the off-licence to get a 1d back on the bottle If my brother and I found any lying around they were returned also. Easy way to earn some pennies. We could do it then, why not now? A question though – what would happen to the returned plastic bottles today? Is there a facility to rec-cycle them as plastic bottles again, or ???

  3. why oh why is it so difficult for the politicians to understand that it is the multiplicity of plastics and the almost complete lack of information from the manufacturers and food producers on recyclability that is the main cause of the daily frustrations on what is/is not recyclable. Having spent a career in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and “smart” foods, I fully understand that these industries are required to provide comprehensive information on the safety and shelf life of all packaged foods. But surely, an expedited negotiation with these companies and the creation of a short list of approved packaging materials as well as the shelf life studies wouldnot take more than a year.

    1. They probably all understand but are too busy making their money for now! Monetary greed drives most of the ambitious folk who want their extra TVs, classy plane tripping vacations and endless pats on the back for ‘You’ve made it!’ regardless of the fact their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren will suffer the plane we’ve all left them!! They’ll, quite brutally, will be long dead and gone so it’s a ‘It won’t affect me!’ attitude and life style. car for every member of the household and all the emissions to go with it. Married 30 years, to GP, and 2 children and we’re a ONE CAR family! Our legs still work.

  4. Hi Lucy, I totally agree with the thrust of your article but would you mind clarifying how you arrived at the figure of ’14 billion plastic bottles we plough through in the UK every day’. For a population of 66 million that’s an awful lot each per day. Thanks.

    1. Good point. A quick check indicates that the figure is in the region of 14 million, not 14 billion. Still an awful lot and definitely something that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later. Government departments do seem to be over reliant on covering their backsides by long drawn out consultations before going ahead with things that are clearly beneficial and have widespread support.


In case you missed it

Read the latest edition of Wicked Leeks online

Issue 12: Fairness and five years.

Learn more

About us

Find out more about Wicked Leeks and our publisher, organic veg box company Riverford.

Learn more