Mark Stockwell served as a Croydon councillor from 1998 to 2002. He has since worked in a range of policy and communications roles in the public and private sector.
One Brexiteer voice that has been remarkably quiet (in public at least) in recent weeks as the ongoing controversy over Brexit has rumbled on has been that of Michael Gove. He seems to have taken a leaf out of the book of his old chum George Osborne, given the moniker ‘the submarine Chancellor’ at one time, in recognition of his ability to take shelter beneath the waves during political storms.
Yesterday, Gove resurfaced – but his focus was on marine matters nonetheless, sticking strictly to his ministerial brief with proposals to ban the use of various so-called ‘single-use plastics’.
As Mark Wallace pointed out on ConservativeHome recently, the May premiership’s willingness to embrace interventionism has, all too often, taken the form in recent times of proposals for outright bans. It is perfectly understandable that the Government should feel the need to be in tune with the zeitgeist, and be seen to be tackling the perceived failures of capitalism, but such an approach risks bringing pain with little or no commensurate gain.
Even where ministers’ interventionist itch stops short of a ban, there is often a marked gap between stated purpose and likely outcome. The ‘sugar tax’ hits poorer consumers disproportionately and, by focusing on soft drinks, does nothing to tackle wider problems of poor diet and low levels of physical activity. The cap on domestic fuel bills offers some modest relief to people on the worst deals, but what would really help is more effective action to get them to switch supplier or change tariffs.
Into this murky cocktail of good intentions and headline grabbing, the Government is now dropping proposals to ban plastic cotton buds, straws, and drink-stirrers of the sort used in many high-street coffee shops.
The driver for this is clear. Few of us can fail to have been moved by images of marine life entangled and poisoned by excess plastic; of entire islands swamped by discarded bottles; and by Sir David Attenborough’s eloquent call to arms as part of his recent Blue Planet TV series. People are clamouring for the Government to take decisive action — more than 160,000 individuals responded to a Treasury call for evidence earlier this year, as well as the usual trade bodies and pressure groups — and what could be more decisive than swingeing new taxes or even outright bans?
Once again, though, these proposals seem to be designed more to win approval at middle-class dinner parties than to address the real environmental issues — to say nothing of the costs that will inevitably fall on consumers already being hit by the fall in the value of sterling and flatlining real wages.
Reusable materials create health risks unless they are properly cleaned and sanitised, which means using hot water and detergent. The water itself then has to be treated. This process carries both a cost and a significant environmental impact which needs to be taken into account. The fact that plastic cutlery is not included in these proposals is perhaps a recognition of this.
So couldn’t we use compostable materials instead? When the Government published its earlier call for evidence in March, environmentalists at the Green Alliance warned of the risk of unintended consequences, pointing to the valuable role plastics play in reducing food waste and thereby limiting greenhouse gas emissions. They also warned that a major shift from plastic to plant-based alternatives could result in deforestation to meet the demand for land.
In any case, compostable waste doesn’t just miraculously melt back into the ground: it needs to be sent to a proper composting facility. If it is dropped as litter, it can end up polluting a river or ocean every bit as much as a piece of plastic, and people who go around dropping plastic straws and stirrers on the street aren’t going to stop doing so just because they are now made from something other than plastic. If anything, the fact that it’s made of supposedly ‘green’ material will be more likely to make them think it’s OK to discard it wherever they see fit. The element of moral hazard does not appear to be addressed in the consultation.
The strong consumer pressure is already having an impact on supermarket chains, with Waitrose for example recently pledging to end the use of plastic bags (although again, it is worth noting that Friends of the Earth greeted this announcement by expressing their concern that compostable replacements would bring their own problems). Many coffee shops already offer a 25p or 50p discount to customers bringing a reusable cup, and presumably do this at least in part because they feel it will win them additional custom from green-minded consumers. One might expect a Conservative Government to look favourably on this sort of market-led approach.
Instead of a war on plastics, the Green Alliance called for a war on littering. This represents a common-sense way for government — including local government — to enlist people’s understandable desire to make a difference to their immediate environment, and in doing so make a contribution to a wider problem. (It is not entirely fatuous to point out that what we do in the UK will make little difference to the fate of the remote islands we see on TV as our contribution to global plastic pollution is, well, a drop in the ocean.)
The Government should resist Defra’s enthusiasm for bans (and the Treasury’s for heavy new taxes that will fall mostly on poorer consumers) and instead place greater emphasis on public education, enforcement of existing anti-littering laws, and making it easier for people to do the right thing by making public waste disposal options more readily available.