Environmental audit committee recommends adoption of ‘polluter pays’ principle, as well as backing deposit return scheme and public water fountains

Supermarkets, retailers and drinks companies should be forced to pay significantly more towards the recycling of the plastic packaging they sell, an influential committee of MPs has said.

Members of the environmental audit committee called for a societal change in the UK to reduce the 7.7bn plastic water bottles used each year, and embed a culture of carrying reusable containers which are refilled at public water fountains and restaurants, cafes, sports centres and fast food outlets.

British consumers use 13bn plastic bottles a year, but only 7.5bn are recyled. MPs said the introduction of a plastic bottle deposit return scheme (DRS) was key to reducing plastic waste in the UK, as part of a series of measures to reduce littering and increase recycling rates.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has called for evidence on a plastic bottle deposit scheme, and it is expected to be part of measures he announces in the new year. Major retailers have yet to support such a scheme, but Iceland and the Co-op recently announced their backing for a DRS.

The report published on Friday underlines the need for government intervention to tackle plastic waste in the UK and calls for higher charges on companies to contribute to clearing up the waste they create.

Mary Creagh, chair of the environmental audit committee, said: “Urgent action is needed to protect our environment from the devastating effects of marine plastic pollution, which if it continues to rise at current rates, will outweigh fish by 2050.

“Plastic bottles make up a third of all plastic pollution in the sea and are a growing litter problem on UK beaches. We need action at individual, council, regional and national levels to turn back the plastic tide.”

In the report MPs called for the “polluter pays” principle to be applied to companies to increase their contribution to recycling plastic waste.

Companies in the UK that produce the waste, including supermarkets and beverage firms, pay one of the lowest contributions towards its recycling of any country in Europe under the Producer Responsibility Obligations. Instead taxpayers pay 90% of recycling costs.

“We took account of the polluter pays principle; that those who produce pollution should bear the cost of managing it,” MPs said. “The Producer Responsibility Obligations do not make producers financially responsible for the packaging they are putting on the market.

“The committee is calling on the government to adopt a producer responsibility compliance fee structure that rewards design for recyclability and raises charges on packaging that is difficult to recycle.”

MPs are also demanding the government makes it law that plastic bottles have to contain a minimum of 50% recycled plastic by 2023 at the latest.

The UK’s recycling rate has plateaued in the last five years, and in the UK 15 million plastic bottles are littered, sent to landfill or incinerated every day.

Deposit return schemes operate in several European countries, as well as parts of Australia and the US. MPs heard evidence that a deposit return scheme could help remove 700,000 plastic bottles from being littered each day, offering a financial incentive for the public to return them rather than throw them away.

“Fewer than half of councils provide on street recycling bins,” the report said. “The UK needs an effective system to capture all plastic bottles not just those disposed of in household waste … we therefore recommend the government introduce a well designed DRS providing an economic incentive for consumers to recycle plastic bottles.”

Samantha Harding, litter programme director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: “This is a significant and unequivocal recommendation by the cross-party EAC – that the analysis of the evidence it received has shown England does need a deposit return system to save us from the plastic choking our countryside and coasts.”

The report said the money raised should be reinvested in plastic reprocessing facilities in the UK to reduce the amount of plastic exported each year – about 320,000 tonnes.

“Given the recent Chinese ban on mixed plastic waste from the UK, this investment is both urgent to avoid a huge increase in landfill, and will save money and create jobs.”

The report said that in the last 15 years, consumption of bottled water had doubled. The committee said amending the Water Industry Act 1991 to give water companies formal powers to erect water fountains, and introducing regulations that all premises that serve food and drink must offer free drinking water, could cut usage of plastic water bottles by 65%.

Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK, said: “A lot of single-use plastic items provide more cost than benefit, but currently the manufacturers only see the benefits. Once the manufacturers are given responsibility for the costs as well, the system should quickly become a lot more efficient. The reduction solutions recommended by the EAC, such as free drinking water from restaurants, cafes and public water fountains are all good ones, and it will be interesting to see how industry innovates once it is incentivised to do so.”

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