The latest bogeyman: Plastic

As you have probably noticed from the wall-to-wall coverage, plastic is big news at the moment. We’re seeing report after report of the effect of plastic on wildlife, from strangled tortoises to whales dying full of plastic bags.

The government has responded. Michael Gove has launched an attack on plastics, pledging to ban plastic straws, stirrers, cotton buds and all sorts of other things. He’s also announced a ‘deposit return scheme’ for plastic bottles, whereby a tax of 22p is applied and you can get it back when you recycle at a specially set up centre.

Campaigners have greeted this news with glee – they point to the ‘success’ of the plastic bag tax, where use has gone down by 83% in England. But the picture on the impact of the plastic bag tax is not as clear as that statistic suggests. For one thing, it doesn’t count heavier duty plastic bags (or ‘bags for life’), including those handed out as standard by Sainsbury’s. This is because they are assumed to be used more than once – but I think we all know that’s not true. At the same time, the statistics do not count increases in sales of other types of plastic bags like bin liners, which market researcher IRI has declared the ‘strongest-growing household category’.

But not only do the statistics not measure plastic bag use in a way that actually relates to real life, the whole argument ignores the wider environmental impact of the policy. Analysis by DEFRA found that reusable bags would have to be reused many, many times to match single use plastic bags on their environmental credentials. Taking into account raw materials, production processes, transport and end of life, a single cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to match a plastic bag that is not reused, and 173 times to allow for some plastic bags being reused as bin liners.

Surprise, surprise, the government didn’t look at the full picture when it comes to plastic bags – and it’s making the same mistake with other types of plastic.

Take the plastic bottle deposit return scheme. Almost every household in the UK (99% in fact) has access to plastic recycling through their council’s bin collections, through which 58% of plastic bottles are already recycled. A deposit return scheme is supposed to incentivise recycling by giving you money back for doing it (up to 22p per bottle). However, it is much less convenient than curb-side recycling collections, and it’s not clear that 22p per bottle is incentive enough to recycle the remaining 42% of plastic bottles that are otherwise disposed of – especially since many of these are used and thrown away on the go. Do we expect many people to carry their empty water bottle around all day and then drive to a deposit return centre to claim their 22p?

The campaign against other plastic conveniences misses another important consequence: the impact on disabled people. Disability campaigners have explained how alternatives to plastic straws do not always do the job for disabled people, and how cut up food in plastic packaging can be a lifesaver for many disabled and elderly people. Is the solution to these issues to make an exception for the disabled? A sort of ‘plastic licence’ that lets you buy the convenient stuff? No, not really, because disabled people make up a small (though needy) group, and we know the rules of economics: a small market means specialist products and higher prices.

And the environmental impact of plastic alternatives? Well, indications are that the story is similar to that of plastic bag alternatives. Presumably DEFRA is undertaking a full analysis – we’ll keep our eyes peeled for the results, since we expect they won’t fit the narrative and so will be kept quiet.

What can we do then?

We at Conservatives for Liberty loves our seas and oceans, and the life in them. We’re as sad and angry as you are when we see the plastic bags inside the bellies of dead whales. But as with all areas of public policy it’s important to make sure the response to this issue does two things: actually helps to solve the problem, and doesn’t have any serious unintended consequences. History – including recent history – shows us that bans are rarely the answer, though statistics may be manipulated to make you think otherwise.

So let’s focus on the real issue, which is not our use of plastic, but the disposal of it. It may seem an obvious point but it has been ignored by anti-plastic campaigners: plastic only makes its way into the sea when it has not been put in a bin.

Put your plastic in a bin, a recycling bin if possible. Teach your kids to always put rubbish in bins. Support your local community litter picks. Ask your local council for bins to be put in public areas that don’t have one.

And then let’s look at where plastic in oceans actually comes from – spoiler alert, it’s not the UK.