Is Voluntary Pledge Enough? 42 UK Companies Sign Pledge To Reduce Use Of Plastic

UK supermarkets and food companies have launched a voluntary pledge to reduce plastic packaging. Already, about 42 businesses, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Aldi, Lidl and Waitrose, have signed up to support the UK Plastics Pact—an industry-wide initiative launched by sustainability body WRAP, which aims to transform packaging, reduce avoidable plastic waste and keep it out of the oceans.

The pledge includes an aspiration that by 2025, 100 percent plastic packing can be reused, recycled or composted; that 70 percent will be effectively recycled or composted; and that all plastic packaging will have 30 percent-average recycled content.

In response to the pledge, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said that “[o]ur ambition to eliminate avoidable plastic waster will only be realized if government, businesses and the public work together. Industry action can prevent excess plastic reaching our supermarket shelves in the first place. I am delighted to see so many businesses sign up to this pact and I hope other follow suit.”

The signatories to the pledge are responsible for more than 80 percent of the plastic packaging on products sold through UK Supermarkets. Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, stated: “[w]e all have a role to play in reducing the amount of plastics used in the society [sic]. For our part, we accept our responsibilities and are working hard to reduce the use of plastic across our business.”

The pledge has come under fire by critics who noted that the UK Plastic Pact is voluntary, and that the pledge does not come with an enforcement mechanism. Also, as the critics noted, the pledge fails to commit to removing all single-use packaging, instead promising to remove problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic by 2025.

Environmental Consultants Eunomia said the voluntary pledge should not be used as an excuse by the secretary of state to refrain from regulating plastic waste. Dr. Dominic Hogg, a representative for the consultant stated that “if you want 70% of packaging to be recycled or composted, don’t put it in a voluntary agreement that businesses can choose to adopt or not choose to, make it a policy, legislate to drive performance to that level. Plastic waste is a significant global problem and won’t be addressed by a voluntary pact.”

UK ministers are considering increasing the levy on the collection and recycling of waste produced by UK supermarkets and food companies. Supermarkets in the UK pay less than any other European country towards collecting and recycling their plastic waste, leaving taxpayers to cover up 90% of the bill.

The supermarkets had hitherto strongly lobbied the UK government against increasing the amount they paid towards the collection and recycling of their plastic and other waste, because of the negative fiscal implications such increase could have on their businesses. However, the government is expected to announce changes to the Packaging Recovery Notes (PRN) scheme in its waste and recycling strategy this summer.

Plastic waste is a worldwide issue and has become the focus of key policy debates bordering on marine pollution, climate change and environmental security. An estimated three hundred million tonnes of plastic flow into the oceans yearly, endangering marine life. Marine creatures either become entangled in plastic or consume fragments for food. Although there is no current evidence that sea-food consumption has reached levels where it could endanger human health, this could constitute a huge problem in the future if not effectively managed. The UK Government and indeed policymakers globally must take the issue seriously to preserve  endangered marine species, promote environmental security, and mitigate the attendant impact of climate change.

Oraka Onome