The European Parliament last month passed legislation to introduce a wide-ranging ban on single use plastics that pollute our rivers, oceans and even our food chain. This is a vital step towards tackling the scourge of plastic. We in the UK need to follow suit if we want to clean up our environment after Brexit. But so far, we’ve not seen much willingness to do so from our national government.
The budget ruled out, at least for now, a tax on single-use, non-recyclable plastic packaging, proposing instead to tax only plastics with less than 30 per cent recycled content (so-called “virgin plastics”). Meanwhile, at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the world’s oceans each year. For Londoners, the devastating impacts are very close to home. Many fish in the Thames have ingested plastic fibres, notably the European flounder. Separate studies have found that 90 per cent and 75 per cent of this species are affected.
What can London do on its own to help protect the planet? There are sustainable alternatives to just throwing away so many of the products that pollute the oceans. Sadiq Khan and Thames Water have jointly pledged £5 million for installing hundreds of water fountains across the city, where people can re-fill plastic bottles rather than buying more. This builds on the roaring success of new fountains installed in the summer: more than 8,000 litres of drinking water, the equivalent of the contents of 16,000 individual bottles, were dispensed from the two at Liverpool Street station in less than one month. I hope to see more of these simple and effective ideas put into action.
Nationally, I want to see more responsibility placed on producers and manufacturers to cut down on their use of non-recyclable plastics. The UK could learn from Norway’s example. In addition to reducing plastic use in general, manufacturers there have transitioned to using using only two types of plastic, one of which is very easily recyclable. Consequently, Norway now recycles 98 per cent of its plastic waste. This is why the London Assembly environment committee, of which I am deputy chair, recently wrote to the Mayor, asking him to sign up to the UK’s “plastic pact” and therefore help encourage supermarkets to cut down on their use of plastic packaging.
The good news about national government is that it is running a consultation about banning the widespread use of many single-use plastics in the UK. I am confident that doing so would enjoy widespread support, and I urged everyone to respond to the consultation before it closes on 3 December. And the government needs to go further, by placing a comprehensive single-use plastic packaging tax back on the table. Those of us who watched Blue Planet II have the heart-breaking footage of a mother whale whose calf was killed by eating plastic etched on our memories. We can’t afford to wait any longer or we really will end up with more plastic than fish in our seas, oceans and rivers, including London’s own.
Leonie Cooper is the London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth.