UK risks becoming ‘dumping ground’ for plastic after Brexit – The Guardian
The EU is currently drawing up an ambitious “circular economy” strategy which aims to make manufacturers take greater responsibility for the way the billions of plastic bottles that are produced each year are disposed of, collected and recycled.
Experts say this – combined with ambitious recycling targets – will help tackle the plastic bottle crisis that some campaigners are equating to the threat posed by climate change.
But leading EU figures and environmental groups warn that the UK will not be bound by the new deal outside the EU and risks becoming a “dumping ground” for plastic and other waste.
Javor Benedek, vice chair of EU environment committee, said: “The UK risks falling behind the rest of the EU in the way it deals with the issue of plastic waste and plastic bottles with little effort for waste prevention and better recycling, less onus on big producers to take responsibility and ultimately more plastic ending up in illegal dump sites or the ocean.”
He added: “There is a real danger it will become the dirty man of Europe in terms of waste management and plastic bottles in particular.”
Figures obtained by the Guardian reveal that people bought more than 480bn plastic drinking bottles around the world in 2016, and that demand will soar another 20% by 2021.
The EU has been working on the circular economy strategy for several years. Before the end of 2017 the European Council, the European Commission and Parliament are expected to hammer out a final agreement, although it may not come fully into force for up to three years.
The package aims to create a “concrete and ambitious programme of action” which covers the whole cycle of goods: from production and consumption to waste management and recycling. It would make manufacturers responsible to their products for their lifetime and bring in ambitious targets for recycling and waste management.
The government says it is taking the issue of plastic bottles seriously. But Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder who also sits on the EU environment committee said that without the legislative and enforcement framework provided by the EU, the government was unlikely to have the resources or political will to develop an equivalent system.
“The new Tory government is not one that respects the environment,” she said. “There is a real danger we will fall behind [the rest of the Europe] in terms of the onus we place on big corporations to take responsibility for their waste which could have big consequences on trade.”
She added: “My fear is that these negotiations on the circular economy package will not be completed until after we leave so even if the government commits to abide by all existing rules in a trade deal it may well not include this.”
She called for a new body to oversee environmental issues from plastic waste to air pollution.
But she warned: “That will take resources and political will – neither of which seems likely with a Tory government. This is not a priority for them but it is an urgent priority for future generations and for the planet.”
Caroline Lucas, Green party joint leader and MP, said the EU had been essential for environmental protections. She warned that with Michael Gove as new environment secretary and the Tories in coalition with the “climate-dinosaurs of the DUP” the “UK risks becoming an off-shore pollution haven”.
She added that people’s lives were “awash with throwaway plastic” and said the government must do more to address the issue.
“If we’re going to protect our oceans and our countryside we need to end the age of single-use plastics. It’s time for government, working alongside industry – and drinks companies in particular – to take drastic action.”
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Another study of remote Arctic beaches found they were also heavily polluted with plastic, despite small local populations. And earlier this week scientists warned that plastic bottles and other packaging are overrunning some of the UK’s most beautiful beaches and remote coastline, endangering wildlife from basking sharks to puffins.
Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
Scientists fear that chemicals in plastics and also chemicals which attach themselves to plastic in the natural environment could cause poisoning, infertility and genetic disruption in marine life, and potentially in humans if ingested in high quantities.
Pieter Depous, policy director at the European Environmental Bureau, which represents 141 environment organisations and NGOs across Europe, said marine pollution “knows no borders and it’s in the interest of all European citizens, including the British people, to find a common solution”.
But he warned that the “frequently touted ‘low tax, low regulation’ economic model suggested by Theresa May will most likely result in lower domestic fees for producer responsibility.”
“There will be fewer incentives to manufacture reusable and recyclable packaging solutions, which will in turn lead to more resources being used and more plastic ending up in the ocean.”