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Bid to clean up seas with plastic tax draws mixed response

Alan Tovey
Philip Hammond said the BBC series Blue Planet highlighted the global scale of the plastic pollution problem  - Blue Planet II 

Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series documenting plastic pollution in the seas was credited by the Chancellor as he announced a consultation aimed at cleaning up the oceans by eliminating “throwaway” products.

Philip Hammond said he was “determined that our generation should leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it”, and wanted views on how single-use plastic products could be taxed out of existence.

He said the whole supply chain for products – which include straws, takeaway boxes, coffee cups and cigarette filters – needed to be looked at, with options including alternative materials, reusable products and recycling considered.

However, he emphasised that the consultation would not be a revenue raising exercise.

Instead, Mr Hammond said any new levies would drive behaviour and innovation, with money raised funding the changes.

Plastic in the ocean will match the weight of fish by 2050

To kickstart new ideas, the Chancellor said £20m of government money would be on offer to universities and industry to come up with novel ways of reducing single-use plastic products.

Despite this, the move got a mixed ­reception from the industry and ­commentators.

David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of recycler Suez UK, warned against the prospect “of a few piecemeal bans on high-profile items to capture the public’s imagination”, referring to the “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups proposed by MPs on the environmental audit committee earlier this year.

He added: “Taxation and policy reforms above all should be used to incentivise change and drive innovation, starting with design and manufacture, rather than just focus on consumers when they are sold products wrapped in, or made of, single-use plastics.”

Richard Kirkman, head of technology and innovation at recycling and waste group Veolia, added that much of the plastic in use today is recyclable yet is only used once and this also needs to be addressed.

“While looking at new types of packaging, we must also remember that a vast proportion of plastic is not captured for recycling,” he said.

“More than 5bn plastic bottles that can easily be recycled are not even re-entering the supply chain. The good news is we seem to be at a tipping point. With the right policy conditions, manufacturers, consumers and the recycling industry can collectively start a new recycling revolution.”

More plastic has been produced this decade than in the previous century

The British Plastics Federation cautioned against an all-out attack on the material, pointing to the “many positive uses for plastic in society, from hospitals to food security”.

Tax interventions have succeeded before. A 5p levy on carrier bags started in 2015 has cut their consumption by 80pc, according to the Treasury.

The British Retail Consortium – whose supermarket members were most impacted by the move – said that packaging materials were already “taxed” when used under producer responsibility measures.

The trade body warned against adding a second system, and instead called for reform of the current scheme to make it comprehensive.