Defra is regarded as a hard Brexit department of government
An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year in the UK, with just 1 in 400 recycled. The scale of this waste prompted the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in December to recommend that the government should introduce a 25p levy on single use cups and set a target of full recycling by 2023, with an outright ban if the 2023 target was missed.
Theresa May said the latte levy was an “exciting idea”, while Michael Gove, the environment minister, was photographed arriving at Downing Street displaying his new bamboo reusable cup and matching mint-green tie. He also gave reusable cups to his cabinet colleagues.
But only two months on, ministers now think retailers should introduce a discount for customers that bring their own container, rather than adding a 25p charge on purchases with throwaway cups.
This goes against EAC recommendations, as well as evidence from the plastic bag charge that was introduced across the UK between 2011 and 2015. In England alone, usage in 2016/17 was 83 percent lower than in 2014 – with 9 billion fewer bags used by shoppers.
Several high street chains, including Starbucks and Costa Coffee, already offer customers with reusable cups a 25p discount. But less than 2% of coffees sold in the UK receive this discount, with industry experts telling the EAC this is down to a lack of awareness of the schemes, as well as the discount offered being too small.
Depending on the findings from the new consultation, a charge on single-use plastic could be rolled out in one of three forms: a tax on the use of single-use plastics; a charge on plastics at the point of purchase (like the plastic bag charge); or introducing a deposit-return system for consumers.
As ministers now favour a discount rather than a tax with coffee cups – despite the EAC recommendation – it suggests a similar approach could be taken with single-use plastics.
The EAC’s enquiry was prompted by the BBC’s 2016 documentary ‘War on Waste’, with subsequent programmes lifting the plastic crisis up the public agenda.
The BBC’s ‘Blue Planet’ programme as well as Sky’s ‘Ocean Rescue’ and the Daily Mail’s anti-waste campaigns, amongst others, ensured it remained in the public conscious, across the political spectrum.
The government successfully caught the public mood on tackling plastic and helped drive this media narrative, ultimately bringing enough attention to the crisis that voluntary action has been taken.
The BBC, Sky, Wetherspoons pub chain, Morrisons and Tesco supermarkets, and drinks giant Diageo are among those pledging to cut out single-use plastics.
But this is insufficient to make a real difference in the absence of actual legislation. Despite the voluntary changes seen already, there are many more businesses with no stated intention to cut their use of plastic.
Green Brexit in the bin?
The government has promised to deliver a ‘green Brexit’, with higher environmental standards in the UK once we leave the EU. To this end, in January Defra published a 25-year environment plan that included the aim of eliminating ‘all avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042’.
A new environmental watchdog to oversee post-Brexit regulation has been promised, with an Environment Bill expected in the autumn. For Michael Gove, this presents both an opportunity to enhance his personal legacy as a leading Brexiteer and deliver a tangible benefit to the UK environment from Brexit.
This gives the UK government the chance to build in greater environmental ambition,[JH1] delivering what was set out in the 25-year plan. But there is a real risk of deregulation under the guise of repatriation of powers, with some Tory MPs calling on the government to roll back regulation across the economy.
In Whitehall Defra is regarded as a hard Brexit department, because it is led by an ardent brexiteer, and standards and regulations are key to the idea of ‘taking back control’.
It is important to note, however, that EU membership has never prevented the UK from raising its environmental standards by itself, and maintaining high environmental and product standards will be crucial for a future trade agreement with the EU.
Political success as a minister and delivering environmental success for the country are not the same thing, and Michael Gove needs to follow through and make good on the promise to raise environmental ambition in post-Brexit UK.
This government has the ambitious goal of making sure ours is the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it was found, and a long-term strategy for tackling plastic waste is crucial to this.
But back-tracking on the latte levy could set a precedent that undermines a green Brexit, as well as the government’s dream of ensuring a ‘protected and enhanced environment’ is passed to the next generation.
Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. He tweets at @JDuttonUK.