On 19th June, I sent the following letter to Caroline Spelman, the UK's new Secretary of State for the Environment:
This week you called for the UK to become a zero waste society, an issue which I whole heartedly support.
I am currently researching and writing a book about plastic. Loosely titled ‘A Life Less Plastic’, it will chart the story of plastic, from its manufacture, to the myriad plastic products we find in our homes, to its disposal, and all of the environmental concerns surrounding it. I was therefore particularly interested in your comments about encouraging manufacturers to reduce their packaging materials, which are often comprised of single use plastics, and was hoping that you would be able to tell me more about this proposal and how you will achieve it.
As Environment Secretary, please could you also tell me what plans, if any, you have regarding plastic bags. Although plastic now features strongly in every aspect of the average westerner’s daily lifestyle, from the packaging on the food we eat, to the technology we use, and even the activities we undertake in our leisure time, the plastic bag is probably the most widely recognised form of plastic pollution. Many countries have already taken steps to ban single use plastic bags, with often astounding results, or to introduce taxes on them. The Republic of Ireland, for instance, introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which resulted in a 90% reduction in plastic bag usage as well acquiring significant extra revenue for the government. Are you considering a similar tax, or an outright ban, for the UK? For your interest, I attach a list of worldwide bans and taxes on plastic bags currently in place.
I understand that you are a person who is very much in demand and with a heavy workload, but I would very much like to enter a conversation with you on these subjects. As you are aware, zero waste and plastic waste are subjects very much in the public sphere at the moment, and they are obviously on the new government’s agenda as well, and it is in the public’s interest – and in the interest of the environment and our swiftly depleting resources – to tackle these issues openly and quickly.
I look forward to hearing from you and learning more about your own and the government’s plans and thoughts on this important issue.
And here is the reply I have just recieved:
Dear Ms Popple
Thank you for your email of 19 June to the Secretary of State. I have been asked to reply.
It is encouraging to hear of your interest in this issue. You may have seen that the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, has recently announced a full review of waste policies in England. The overarching purpose of the Review will be to ensure that the correct waste policies are in place to enable us to move towards a ‘zero waste society’.
In line with the European Union’s revised Waste Framework Directive, the Government's aim is to end the needless distribution of carrier and, over the longer term, we would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past. The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties. All bags have an environmental impact - reusing them as many times as possible and disposing of them in an appropriate way minimises this impact. This could include a final use as a bin liner – displacing the need for a new bag/liner to be used instead.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) monitor the number of bags given out by the main supermarkets, and will present their next full set of data this summer.
On 18 December 2008, Britain's leading supermarkets, represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), signed up to an agreement pledging a 50 per cent cut in the number of carrier bags given out by the end of May 2009, based on a 2006 baseline, and to aspire to a longer term reduction of 70 per cent. The agreement covered seven of Britain's major supermarket chains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and targeted both paper and plastic single-use carrier bags provided by the supermarkets involved. The supermarkets committed to the agreement account for more than 85 per cent of the UK grocery market and, therefore, a significant proportion of the UK's carrier bag usage. Bags will still be available, but retailers will be introducing various measures to reduce the number they give out, and encourage consumers to reuse the bags they have - whatever sort of bags they are.
The voluntary agreement builds on an earlier agreement with 21 leading retailers to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25 per cent between May 2006 and December 2008. The results of this earlier agreement were a 26 per cent reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40 per cent reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags.
More information on WRAP’s work on reducing waste and increasing resource efficiency in businesses and public organisations can be found on its website at www.wrap.org.uk.
For more information on Defra’s programme on reducing waste arising from carrier bags, please visit our website at www.defra.gov.uk/environment/localenv/litter/bags/index.htm.
I hope this is helpful.
Customer Contact Unit
My first response to the David Hands' reply is: did he actually read my letter?
"You may have seen that the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, has recently announced a full review of waste policies in England," he writes. Err, well, had he read my letter properly, he may have seen that an acknowledgement of this forms the opening sentence of my letter, "This week [Caroline Spelman] called for the UK to become a zero waste society." Ok, so maybe my comment doesn't directly refer to an overview of waste management policy, but I do think it demonstrates that I'm aware of the review and the Secretary of State's movements on it.
"The Government's aim is to end the needless distribution of carrier and, over the longer term, we would like to see the single-use carrier bag, issued free at the point of sale, become a thing of the past." Ok, that's a start. But how does he define "needless distribution", and how does the government actually plan to end this needless distribution?
"The key to reducing the number of bags we use is reuse of bags of all varieties." I take this to mean that the manner in which the government plans to end "needless distribution" of the single-use carrier bag is by making them, errr, multiple use? So, no bans, no taxes, just encouraging people to re-use them? Doesn't sound like a very solid plan really does it? And how are they going to encourage people to re-use them?
"On 18 December 2008, Britain's leading supermarkets, represented by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), signed up to an agreement pledging a 50 per cent cut in the number of carrier bags given out by the end of May 2009, based on a 2006 baseline, and to aspire to a longer term reduction of 70 per cent..." Some nice figures here, that might be enough to satisfy a lot of people with similar queries. But it rather feels like he is simply quoting figures he's been told to brag about, rather than having properly read my letter and considered the issues I tried to raise within it.
Are you kidding me?
"The results of this earlier agreement were a 26 per cent reduction in numbers of bags distributed by participating retailers, and a 40 per cent reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags." A 40% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags? How on earth can he quantify or prove this figure? Where does this figure come from and how was it obtained?
The Defra website link doesn't work. At least, not today anyway. Which means I am unable to look at "more information on Defra’s programme on reducing waste arising from carrier bags."