Earlier this month, the UK government introduced its new plastics tax, with £200 per metric tonne now added to the cost of any plastic packaging produced or imported to the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.*
The tax – which aims to make virgin plastic as expensive as recycled plastic and therefore encourages the use of recycled plastic – is an early foray from the government into using fiscal mechanisms to create an economy that circulates products and materials for as long as possible, rather than one which disposes of them after first use.
This latest legislation follows on from the successful carrier bag levy, which between its introduction in 2015 and 2020 saw the number of single-use plastic bags provided by major supermarkets reduce from 7.6 billion per year to just 564 million.
Often such levies and taxes are confused or conflated with extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation – but there are distinct differences. Alongside some technical distinctions in how and when they’re paid, taxes and levies are generally focused on providing a disincentive for a particular behaviour – whereas EPR aims to provide the funding for improving the waste management or recycling infrastructure, which is key to creating a circular economy.
Where there is a similarity is that one may well be paving the way for the other. Arguably, by proving through the plastics tax that fiscal measures do cause changes by businesses and consumers and act as a way to bring in funds, the government is laying the groundwork for more legislation, this time in the form of EPR, which not only encourages better behaviour but also funds better waste management infrastructure.
Indeed, it is already planning such legislation.
There is however a bump in the road: the cost-of-living crisis. With producers and brands likely to pass costs on to consumers, the government is (rightly) wary of pushing prices up even higher. As such, we may see the legislation – which has already been postponed by a year from 2023 to 2024 – pushed further down the line.
But this is – and should be – just a temporary pause.
Luckily momentum is gathering elsewhere. At the recent UNEA 5.2 in Kenya, United Nations member states agreed to work on a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution that focuses on the full lifecycle of plastics. While the treaty itself has yet to be negotiated, it is clear that there is a global desire to get to grips with single-use plastics and packaging. EPR will likely play a key role in helping individual governments – including the UK’s – to play their part.
With such winds coming their way, brands have a choice. They can embrace such legislation, working with policymakers to shape it and use their knowledge and expertise to ensure it can be implemented in a practical way. Or they can stick their heads in the sand – risking being caught on the wrong side of the legislation and considered laggards by consumers.
*There are exemptions for those businesses using less than 10,000 tonnes.