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If the UK wants to solve our plastic waste problems, we must limit production

Ahead of the penultimate round of the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations, Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency, writes that the UK Government must match vital leadership on the international stage with greater ambition on domestic plastics policies.

April 2024

It comes as little surprise to anyone that the global plastic crisis has reached alarming proportions. Waste management systems are overwhelmed, recycling infrastructure is failing and the environmental and human health impacts of emissions from every stage of the plastics lifecycle regularly feature in the world’s headlines. From plastics in placentas to the toxic emissions from a derailed train carrying the building blocks of plastics, the impacts are plain to see.

Since hosting COP26, the UK government has prided itself on its environmental leadership. While the UK has contributed positively to the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations so far, we need to see even greater leadership to secure strong global targets on production. Disappointingly, action is not matching rhetoric when it comes to domestic plastics policy. With the penultimate round of the treaty negotiations (INC-4) taking place this week, the UK can show real leadership on this critical imbalance. Indeed, this was the message conveyed by NGOs in a recent letter to the UK Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Steve Barclay.

The UK plastics industry is a significant economic player with annual sales turnover of £28.7 billion and approximately 150,000 workers directly employed in the industry. A significant domestic producer of plastics, the UK also exported £10.5 billion of plastics and plastic products in 2022, placing the sector in the top 10 ranking of UK exporters. While production is high, so is consumption. Households in the UK are estimated to throw away 1.85 billion plastic packaging items each week, equating to almost 100 billion items a year. Yet, the UK’s domestic capacity to handle the waste we produce is grossly insufficient. This discrepancy ensures that UK reliance on plastic waste exports continues to increase, to 568 million kg/yr in 2023 from 482 million kg/yr in 2022.

The UK is not alone. The use of plastics has grown exponentially in recent years, with more than half of all plastics produced since 2004 and the majority used for short-lived applications. With recycling rates as low as 9%, the majority of plastics that have been produced languish in landfills or head to incinerators and the open environment. The brunt of this problem is felt at the waste management end, with the costs borne by local municipalities and in the health of communities – in particular in countries receiving waste from the UK – such as Turkey -where domestic capacity is often already overwhelmed.

As the system stands, plastics are often cheaply made and of little value to recyclers, or in reality unrecyclable due to poor design and problematic materials. Moreover, there is no financial incentive for producers to work with recycled materials as virgin plastic is so cheaply available. In spite of a flawed system, the UK has committed significant financing to drive production of plastics in Europe into the stratosphere. Yet, there is no clear roadmap for how it plans to tackle the problems that increased production would cause, through improved collection, sorting and recycling.

The UK was an early member of the High Ambition Coalition, which aims to end plastic pollution by 2040. Recent statements from the group have called for binding controls to reduce production of plastics to sustainable levels and align treaty provisions with the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement. This leadership is critical at this stage of the negotiations where the ambition of the treaty hangs in the balance.

However, despite international commitment we note a lack of ambition to pursue domestic legislation on issues such as the waste trade despite Conservative Party manifesto commitments and the comparative speed of regulatory change in the European Union surrounding waste exports to non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. This stark contradiction highlights how the UK is falling behind European counterparts, and calls into question whether we are truly committed to delivering more robust governance on waste exports, both domestically and within the context of the new treaty.

This discrepancy is compounded by UK commitments to the development of new facilities to continue producing plastics without efforts in parallel to tackle the issue of waste head on. In that regard, we can anticipate a deeply flawed policy approach for dealing with plastics and a complex lock-in to new infrastructure that will undermine efforts to tackle the lifecycle emissions of plastics long into the future.

At this critical moment we urge the UK to take the reigns on the world stage and support an ambitious global ambition for dealing with plastic production at the upcoming round of treaty negotiations in Ottawa next week. A strong position on production must be coupled with commensurate support for interventions at the waste management level that will start to redress the inequities created by our approach to waste management – a practice largely premised on the idea of ‘’out of sight, out of mind’’. In 2024, we need to bring this back into focus and tackle the problem at home, while also taking responsibility for the problems we have exported.

Christina Dixon is the Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency. Follow: @_c_dixon

EIA’s briefing “Global Plastics Treaty: Initial Considerations for INC-4” is available here. 

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.