The Last Straw

Holly Lynch MP was until recently Shadow DEFRA Minister for fisheries. She is Labour MP for Halifax and is currently taking maternity leave from the front bench. In the Summer Holly wrote an article for our magazine New Ground on plastic straws. 

The government are currently consulting on their proposals for a ban on plastic straws. We encourage SERA members and supporters to submit a response to the consultation and sharing your responses with SERA by emailing [email protected] 

The proliferation of plastic waste is impacting both our natural environments and wildlife across the world. The problem has become so severe that the UN’s oceans chief has called it a “planetary crisis” warning that life in the seas risks irreparable damage.

It’s reassuring to see action being taken across the world seeking to address the crisis and I’m particularly pleased that the Parliamentary authorities have recently set out plans to go plastic free across the estate. This will demonstrate to lawmakers that bold action is possible and significantly reduce the amount of unnecessary waste generated in Westminster alone.

As Labour’s shadow minister with responsibilities for the marine environment and coastal communities I’ve been following the debate around plastics extremely closely. I’ve become increasingly concerned that unlike Parliament itself, the Conservative Government are failing to match their own rhetoric with concrete action.

The Labour party has a proud record of protecting our marine environment, and one of the great achievements of the previous Labour Government was the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This created a system for improving the management and protection of coastal ecosystems including the creation of a network of marine conservation zones. It is in this tradition that the Shadow DEFRA team have been working on a number of campaigns to tackle plastic waste and protect our sealife.

Even prior to the spellbinding Blue Planet II series, Labour launched a campaign to tackle plastic drinking straws. I initially wrote to the top 20 bar and restaurant chains in the country, urging them to adopt a “straws on request ​only” policy, and asking them to stock only biodegradable straws. The response was positive and several major chains responded with a commitment to remove straws from their businesses. Upon realising that plastics have crept into tea bags, Labour’s DEFRA team sent letters to the top tea bag producers, urging them to consider plastic-free alternatives. Responses are currently coming back from these firms and it has been reassuring to see the appetite for action on this specific product. Although the amount of plastic contained within teabags may be small, it is just one more product which doesn’t need to contain plastic and the vast majority of the public would not even be aware that it does.

We recognise that one of the greatest challenges we face in tackling marine pollution, is preventing plastics from reaching our oceans. This will require changing consumer behaviour, changing the behaviour of businesses, as well as improved product design and recycling.  

It will also require Government leadership in order to truly make single use plastics a thing of the past, and to embed recycling into our lives. Yet for all Michael Gove’s big announcements, our primary concern about this Government is that they have failed to bring forward a single piece of primary legislation on any of their announcements on the environment since the last election.

The deposit return scheme for plastic bottles highlights how the Government’s environmental policy is quick to get the headlines, but much slower to take action in reality.

Michael Gove has now confirmed that a consultation on the specifics of the scheme will have to wait until the conclusion of the ongoing single-use plastic tax consultation by the Treasury. We’re told to expect a date of 2020 but with so much uncertainty at present and timelines sliding across a range of DEFRA policy areas, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if this was allowed to slip. This is indefensible when, as a country, we use 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year, with more than 3 billion of those not recycled. Why is it taking the Government so long to introduce a deposit return scheme when 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day?

It’s a similar story with coffee cups. 99.75% of disposable coffee cups used in Britain do not get recycled and as of 2011, it was estimated that we threw away 2.5 billion coffee cups per year in the UK, a figure that is likely to be even higher today. A poll for the Independent newspaper found that 54 per cent of the public support a latte levy of 25p levied on all drinks sold in disposable cups. Businesses are taking the lead, with Starbucks trialling a 5p surcharge at 35 locations across London, and Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee and Greggs all offering discounts for bringing a reusable cup.

Once again we were led to believe that Gove may have been taking this seriously. In January he highlighted the issue by handing out reusable coffee cups to all members of the Cabinet, however, after a few good headlines, the action failed to materialise when the Government rejected the latte levy in March.

We are now eagerly awaiting the Government’s upcoming waste strategy for action to tackle the problem of disposable coffee cups.

To add to this inaction in preventing plastic waste, we’re also concerned about the Government’s approach to recycling the waste which has already been produced.

Progress on recycling must be driven through a comprehensive framework and the EU has been leading the way, with a target of 2030 for phasing out single-use plastics. In addition the EU’s circular economy package requires 65% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2035.

Compare these concrete, ambitious targets to the vagueness of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. While the EU is outlining exactly where targets need to be met, the Government’s plan states that they will be developing ambitious new future targets and milestones, but that it will take 25 years to tackle single-use plastics. I’m glad that the Government has now finally agreed to support the EU targets as we leave the EU, yet it is concerning that Europe is doing all the running on this issue.

The recycling rate has stalled in this country and we’re set to miss the current target of 50% by 2020. We need to ensure that the UK will not fall beneath EU standards on the environment post-Brexit and the Government must put in place policies which can achieve this.

Finally, when discussing waste prevention, we can’t overlook the impact of huge cuts to local authorities and how this has impacted on their ability to collect waste in a timely and efficient manner. We’re seeing increasing numbers of councils opting for collections every three weeks with many introducing increased charges for bulky waste or garden waste collections.

Conservatives currently posing as environmental champions would do well to reflect on the link between these cuts to council budgets and the fact that fly tipping is at its highest level in years. Because with fewer resources for bin collections, street cleaning, litter picking, and bulky collections it should be no surprise that litter is getting worse; it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most visible signs of the Government’s continued austerity.  

These issues around recycling and reducing waste are so important because it’s only by tackling the amount of plastic that we consume and litter on land, that we can hope to reduce the amount that ends up in our seas.

It’s fantastic that people have started to fully appreciate the link between the sometimes rather dry topics of waste and materials use, and the health of marine environments. There is much more to do and international action will also prove crucial in this.

The BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series inspired both wonder at the beauty of the world’s oceans and a horror at the way they are being desecrated. Since the series was broadcast, it has been heartening to see the war on plastics go from something of a fringe issue, to now entering the mainstream. People across the country are switching to reusable bags, bottles and coffee cups. Retailers are being called out on social media for examples of excessive and wasteful packing in their stores, and events such as Wimbledon are banning straws, after handing out 400,000 last year.

However, if we are to see meaningful change we need really need the Government to be taking a lead. Labour’s DEFRA team will continue to hold them to account over their promises on this issue to ensure that we tackle the scourge of marine plastic waste.

Showing 2 reactions

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  • Bill Long
    followed this page 2022-12-31 09:32:18 +0000
  • Gordon Sim
    commented 2018-10-30 10:39:25 +0000
    Sadly this does not go far enough or give any positive steps on what Labour WILL do. I think WE as Labour members should be joining with SKY or similar in trying to push/encourage members and public to do more.
    I as an Electrician have requested from Mfg’s to stop some of their excess packaging, also stopped mags packed in plastic, dont buy news media in plastic, also use loose tea, not in plastic.
    So there is alot to do and Labour should be doing more in HoC, back bench/members 10 minute rule bill. Where is the action ?.