A wrap-up on plastic

Posted on: February 27th, 2020

How we produce, use and dispose of plastic is changing. Despite still being one of the most commonly used man-made materials due to its cost, durability and versatility, consumers and businesses are considering ways to eliminate unnecessary plastics in homes and from supply chains. Manufacturers are already prohibited from making certain single-use plastic products.

These changes are being underpinned by relatively fast regulatory change. So what changes have been made so far to deal with the plastic problem and what further changes are expected?

Existing producer responsibilities

Many businesses are not aware of existing obligations around packaging. If a business produces or uses packaging, or sells packaged goods, it may be classed as an obligated packaging producer. Obligated packaging producers must follow rules which help to reduce packaging and prevent it ending up in landfill.

These requirements are in addition to a waste duty of care. Producers are currently required to keep waste to a minimum by doing everything they reasonably can to prevent, reuse, recycle or recover waste.

Banning microbeads and some single use plastic items

The Government has already prohibited plastic microbeads, previously found in “rinse-off” cosmetic and personal care products such as face wash, body scrubs and tooth paste.

Anyone that manufactures or supplies any rinse-off personal care product that uses microbeads as an ingredient is guilty of an offence and may be liable for a fine. Suppliers have a defence where they can evidence they took ‘reasonable steps’ to avoid committing the offence.

In practice, this means that suppliers and distributors of certain cosmetic and beauty products may need to take additional steps to ensure that they are not being supplied with offending products. They will need to seek specific warranty and indemnity protections in respect of compliance with relevant regulation.

In April, regulations come in to force which ban supplying plastic drinking straws, plastic stemmed cotton buds and plastic stirrers, subject to some exceptions including for people with disabilities.

The Government estimates that as a result, plastic straw usage will fall from 4.7 billion to 44 million each year. An estimated 10% of cotton buds currently find their way into the marine environment and the hope is that these regulations will drastically reduce this.

A ban on beverage carton straws (e.g. milk or juice cartons) and other single use items such as cutlery will come into force at a later date in line with the Single Use Plastics Directive (Directive). Although the UK has not officially committed to implementing the Directive, the Government has indicated it will meet or exceed what the EU does in this area.

Plastic packaging tax

In early 2019, the Government launched a consultation to obtain views on the proposed plastic design tax. The idea is that the Government will introduce a “world-leading” tax on businesses that produce or import plastic packaging from April 2022. This tax will be for packaging that uses insufficient recycled content.

The hope is that the tax will be an incentive for businesses to use recycled material in the production of plastic packaging and encourage the collection of plastic waste rather than it entering landfill sites, or finding its way into the environment.

Any packaging that has at least 30% recycled plastic content will be exempt. The deadline for businesses to adapt to the change is April 2022.

Is more regulation needed?

Many environmental groups and members of the public feel that the current regulations have not gone far enough. Whilst the UK has committed to adopting the EU’s Circular Economy Package, which includes more stringent recycling targets, it has not officially committed to transposing the Single-Use Plastics Directive, which requires more widespread action on plastic reduction.

In fact, some groups argue that the existing duty of care on plastic manufacturers and businesses that use plastic packaging should be enhanced by requiring them to take more than just “reasonable steps” to ensure the plastic is properly disposed or recycled. Whether you agree with this or not, it is fairly self-evident that many businesses are not doing enough to recover waste from public places which could otherwise have been reused or recycled.

But is completely moving away from plastic the right approach?

There are legitimate concerns that businesses are swapping plastics for other materials that potentially have a worse effect on the environment, despite this being the area of intended improvement. For example, glass bottles are much heavier than plastic ones so are far more polluting to transport, or selling drinks in coated cartons when only a third of coated containers can be recycled in UK facilities. The risk is that there will be a knee-jerk reaction to satisfy consumer demand without properly considering the bigger picture and the wider environmental impact.

Whatever happens, manufacturers and suppliers that use or manufacture plastic may need to consider alternatives to plastic over the next few years, and take additional steps to ensure compliance with regulations or face potential fines and reputational damage.

Businesses with strong green credentials may also start taking additional steps to reduce plastic, for example, by undertaking compliance audits up and down supply chains.

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