Plastics … the other environmental emergency

In parallel with good environmental news – at last – from the US, dire global warming warnings from China, plus mixed green signals from the UK’s leadership candidates, the world is starting to wake up to and catch up with another taxing problem. What to do about plastic waste?

It’s summer! And time to throw away cares and worries whenever possible in the current world mega-crisis. But not the ‘disposable’ plastic cups, cutlery, cartons, wrappers – and particularly plastic packaging – that are often literally part and parcel of the modern holiday.

Plastic waste has reached epidemic proportions to the extent that UN member states are working towards putting in place by 2024 an historic treaty to end plastic pollution (https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/historic-day-campaign-beat-plastic-pollution-nations-commit-develop).

The UK Government, meanwhile, has started the battle-against-plastic-waste ball rolling with a swingeing tax on companies not using at least 30% of recycled material in their plastic packaging.

The Chamber Low Carbon (CLC) programme team receives many inquiries about plastic waste in general, and particularly how the new tax works. Therefore, as a one-off summer special, we have taken a close look here at the scourge of plastics, what we can all do to help, and how the new legislation which came into force in April 2022 is applied.

Help with the high costs of living and energy

However, before that we cannot ignore the other mainstream costs and energy crises now facing Lancashire businesses.

With a new Prime Minister soon to enter No 10, East Lancashire Chamber CEO, Miranda Barker OBE, is adamant the successful candidate must be proactive from day one. “Comforting lip service will not be enough,” she says. “The new PM must stand up and do something meaningful.”

“Downing Street cannot use the high cost of materials and energy as a convenient political excuse for doing either very little or next to nothing in the hope that things will improve if we wait long enough,” she adds.

“Many local Lancashire firms simply cannot afford to wait, especially with the astronomically high costs of power. It is important that all our regional companies can survive and thrive to provide employment, pay wages, and keep the Northwest economy active and vibrant.

“That means more support in one form or another to help businesses keep pace with soaring energy costs. The message to No 10 has to be “act now”. Otherwise, it will be too late for many companies.”

Better news from across the pond

In Washington, meanwhile, there was a much back-slapping in August when by the tightest of margins the US Senate passed the milestone Inflation Reduction Act – a result very much in line with CLC goals.

This unprecedented political move reached after many months of wrangling includes £305 billion for affirmative climate action and could lead to a 40% fall in US carbon emissions by 2030.

This wasn’t the legislation Democrats originally wanted, and was only passed on a vote of 50 against and 51 for – including the casting vote of Vice President Kamela Harris. But in the words of Democrat Leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, “We have changed the world”.

Faced with considerable resistance from the Senate’s Republican side, the act described as ‘carrots with no sticks’ will incentivise renewables rather than penalise fossil-fuel users.

Chinese puzzle

China, meanwhile, having broken off climate change cooperation with the US after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, cited the vice-director of its National Climate Centre who explained recently that temperatures over his country’s land surface have risen “much more quickly that the global average over the past 70 years”.

He said they will remain “significantly higher in the future as the challenge of climate change mounts”, and added that “… changing weather patterns in China will affect the balance of water resources, make ecosystems more vulnerable and reduce crop yields”.

London calling

Meanwhile, amid arguments about which green commitments Conservative Party leadership candidates would support as Prime Minister, new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) figures show that 39.6% of UK electricity came from renewables in 2021 – the second highest year on record.

In 2020, more favourable weather conditions for solar and wind power led to a total of 43.2%.

For those hoping to see a major increase in UK renewable energy generating capacity, the figures show a ‘modest’ 3.7% increase installed in the last 12 months equivalent to 1.8GW.

Plastic world

Climate change aside for moment, the big fossil-fuel-based synthetic elephant in the room at the moment – and putting on weight swiftly – is plastics.

Plastic pollution is now so widespread that waste particles and micro-particles are found in all the Earth’s natural environments, including Polar Regions.

On 2nd March 2022, some 200 nations agreed to begin negotiating an international agreement to resolve the ‘plastic crisis’. An early goal is developing an over-arching framework to reduce plastic waste around the world that destroys habitats, harms wildlife, and contaminates food chains.

Parallels have been drawn with the 1989 Montreal Protocol which swiftly phased out ozone-depleting substances. Another suggestion is that plastic deserves a binding treaty like the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

However, it seems clear is that tackling the problem at the edges is not going to work. In the words of Global Plastic Partnership director, Kristin Hughes, “System-wide change is needed”.

Sad survey results

One approach to the problem has been blocked off.

In May 2022, the largest-ever UK household plastic waste survey – The Big Plastic Count (https://thebigplasticcount.com/) – found that average households throw away 66 pieces of plastic a week.

Based on these figures Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic (https://www.everydayplastic.org/) estimate that the UK throws away circa 100 billion pieces annually! The largest culprit in the survey was 83% from food and drink packaging waste, particularly fruit and vegetable packaging.

The work concluded that recycling campaigns alone are not enough to prevent plastic ending up in waste where it can degenerate and breakdown into minute particles that travel across the globe.

Government figures show that in 2021 more than 2.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste were created. Some 44.2% were recycled – 55% in the UK. The rest was exported mainly to Turkey.

The other problem is that not all plastics are equally easy to sort and recycle; data suggests that 61% of plastic bottles are recycled, a figure that drops to 36% for plastic tubs, and just 8% for plastic film.

The Chamber Programme – sustainable goals

Why are plastics important to the Chamber Low Carbon Programme? One core CLC aim is to support the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals) designed as a “blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.

The goals that particularly apply to plastics are: – SDG 3: Good health and well-being; SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation; SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities; SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production; SDG 13: Climate action; SDG 14: Protection of seas and oceans; and SDG 15: Repair ecosystems and retain biodiversity.

Must do much better

So the Government has stepped up the action with a plastic tax. This is now in force. But there is still considerable confusion about what it is, what it is designed to do, who is affects, and how it works.

The goal is to provide a clear incentive for businesses to use recycled plastic for packaging. By increasing demand for recycled material, the idea is to stimulate higher levels of supply from recycling, rather than waste going to landfill, incineration, or escaping into the environment.

In terms of emissions to atmosphere, the bonus should be a 40% carbon emissions saving equal to nearly 200,000 tonnes in 2022 and 2023.

Who is affected?

Plastic packaging manufacturers and importers, and their business consumers who buy plastic packaging or goods wrapped in the same, are affected. Businesses that perform the last manufacturing process before packaging is packed or filled are liable for the tax.

To avoid disproportionate administration, an exemption covers manufacturers and importers using less than 10 tonnes per year of material containing less than 30% of recycled plastic. The 30% figure will be calculated as total plastic recycled content by weight divided by total plastic weight.

Imported material will be liable for the tax whether filled or unfilled. If businesses pass on the charge to customers, the cost is expected to be small because packaging only makes up a small proportion of total goods price tag. The current charge rate is £200 per tonne of plastic waste.

Deliberate burdens

However, it is expected that the impact will mean that an estimated 20,000 manufacturers and importers will have to get to grips with new rules, train staff, register with HMRC, develop reporting frameworks – plus file tax returns, make payments, and keep records.

In addition some businesses and organisations will have to conduct supply chain due diligence.

The average annual net increase in continuing administration burdens for businesses is estimated to be £0.4 million. There will also be civil and criminal penalties for failing to comply with the tax.

Queries can be sent to Denise Welsby at indirecttaxdesign@hmrc.gov.uk.

Another source of guidance information is “Plastic Packaging Tax: steps to take” – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/check-if-you-need-to-register-for-plastic-packaging-tax

Green Conservative policies

Throughout the summer Conservative Party leadership campaign to find the next Prime Minister, candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were reticent about their future plans for climate change.

Both have committed to net-zero, but their environmental policies were described as “plummeting down the priority agenda” as economic and energy issues became increasingly pressing.

Green fight back

A number of Conservative MPs previously aligned themselves with the Net Zero Scrutiny Group arguing against many Government environmental policies on the grounds that they jeopardise the cost of living and energy security.

However, since mid-August the Conservative Environmental Network (CEN) supported by 133 Conservative MPs – half the backbench parliamentary party – has called on the incoming Prime Minister to insulate more homes and scale up heat pump installations to help poorer households.

CEN says its plan can be rolled out in parallel with direct measures to help with winter 2022/23 domestic and business fuel bills, and still push towards the UK’s 2050 net-zero emissions goal.

Practical help

CEN has developed its proposals as “practical, industry-led solutions that the government could swiftly introduce” at a total cost of £9 billion over the next eight years. They include the expansion of an energy industry-led scheme to insulate 500,000 fuel-poor homes this winter, and one million annually by April 2023.

A long-term finance programme would be included; average semi-detached homes could save circa £500 annually.

There is also a plan to expand a scheme replacing gas boilers with heat pumps – the 2025 target is 775,999 annually. This CEN says could save households £225 a year and cut gas usage by 80%.

A final requirement would be for energy companies to advise customers on how to turn down the ‘flow temperature’ of gas boilers so they run more efficiently. Many operate at unnecessarily high temperatures, waste gas, increase bills, but don’t add any extra warmth.

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