Plastic pollution: is it time for mandatory measures?

As plastic waste continues to grow, there are doubts over the effectiveness of voluntary initiatives. Are mandatory measures now the only answer?


Despite years of appeals and encouragement, plastic pollution is only getting worse. Is it time to drop the carrot and pick up the stick?

The carrots have been positive and plentiful. There are international public-private projects, such as the Afri-Plastics Challenge, backed by the Canadian government, which is tackling the alarming rise in plastic waste across Africa. There are other efforts in domestic markets, like the UK Plastics Pact from the Waste Resource Action Programme (WRAP).

Industry-led initiatives abound, too. Last June, for example, five of the UK’s biggest names in branded fast-moving consumer goods — Mars UK, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever — formed a £1m Flexible Plastic Fund to make recycling more economically viable for operators and easier for consumers. Individual retailers like Boots also have their own programmes.

For all this wave of activity, the scale of the plastic problem appears to dwarf the efforts of business and industry. The reality is that the world produces twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment. Just 9% of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to the OECD.

In response, the UK government will be wielding a new stick, as of April 2022, in the form of the Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT). Under the PPT, a £200 per tonne tax will apply to plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled content. It’s estimated the measure could affect up to 20,000 packaging producers and importers.

So, are sticks the answer?

Unbound pollution

Paula Chin is senior policy adviser on consumption at WWF. There is no simple answer, she says. Addressing the complexities of production and consumption needed to stem the flow of plastics into nature is ultimately a transboundary issue.

“We’ve already seen a combination of levers adopted by governments across the world to address the plastic pollution crisis, including bans, taxes, charges, regulations and legislation. But as yet these actions have not been enough to tackle the issue.”

A narrow focus on specific legislation can have unintended consequences, Chin notes.
“Where sticks have been used, they’ve addressed low-hanging fruit, for example bans on plastic straws, charges on single-use carrier bags. But these measures have led to material-switching by producers, which merely shifts environmental and social burdens to different supply chains, all of which have their own impacts.”

The main challenge to date has been a lack of global coordination, which is needed to ensure the measures taken by individual nations scale up to deliver real benefit. That’s why the news from the UN Assembly in Nairobi earlier this month was met with such applause, when representatives of 175 nations signed a breakthrough global resolution to end plastic pollution.

This landmark leap towards an international legally binding instrument raises questions for the packaging industry. It may be entering a new era of hardline, mandatory policy and regulatory drivers, which will supersede the softer-touch voluntary schemes.

Legislation in limbo

When it comes to policy implementation, delays in delivery don’t help.

The launch of the UK’s first Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in Scotland, for instance, has been pushed back twice already to 2023. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) reforms are in danger of faring even worse; they’re no longer due next year, with no new timetable officially in place.

This is a revamp of 1997 legislation, so it’s seriously overdue. The new EPR would see producers effectively made liable for the full cost of managing the packaging that’s put on the market. The government estimates the impact could total about £2.7bn in the first full year of operation.

The fact that it languishes in post-consultation limbo is a source of significant frustration, given its potential to effect change, says Louise Nicholls, Chair of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), a professional body for environment and sustainability practitioners.

“The key to transformation is EPR: a mix of taxation to encourage sustainable packaging; transparent reporting of quantified targets; strong focus on citizen behaviour change; and support for local authorities and waste collectors to develop and maintain infrastructure.”

EPR mechanisms exist in other countries, including Canada, South Korea and Japan, along with several European nations. However, the UK’s stated hopes of achieving an overall recycling rate for EPR packaging of 73% by 2030 seem to be fading.

Unplugged gaps in the regulatory framework are another bugbear, says Nicholls.
“Plastic shrink wrap on multibuy cans, such as beer, fizzy drinks and beans, has definitely been poorly regulated, with home recycling not consistently available,” she says. “Alternatives exist, for example card, but there’s little incentive or pressure for manufacturers to change.”

A perceived long-term lack of resources and investment in enforcement bodies also raises concerns that any policing of new rules and regulations will lack the necessary teeth.

Prizes and penalties

“With a problem of this magnitude, voluntary measures can only get us so far,” admits Jeff Kirschner, founder and CEO of Litterati, a US data-science company that aims to empower people to ‘crowdsource clean’ the planet.

With over a quarter of a million members in 185 countries worldwide, Litterati has so far recorded and mapped an overall litter pickup of more than 15 million pieces of trash.
Witnessing the packaging waste problem first-hand on a daily basis, however, Kirschner is convinced that while regulation and various corrective measures may play a role in reducing plastic waste, there are other practical solutions. “Whether it’s the shift from single use to reuse, where innovative businesses are providing refillable options, or a push for nationwide DRS, all options should be on the table.”

In the end, sustainable change calls for both prizes and penalties, he believes. “Ultimately, we may find that reward-based incentives coupled with punitive actions create the one-two punch needed to solve plastic waste.”