Is financial intervention the solution to our relationship with single use plastic?

29th September 2017

This past year, single use plastic has been a hot topic within the media. Greenpeace have been pressuring Coca-Cola to make their packaging from 100% renewable materials, as currently they produce 100 billion plastic bottles every year. Elsewhere, Sky have been using their position as a news outlet to champion their ‘Ocean Rescue Campaign’ tackling the issues of single use plastic; this has involved releasing documentaries such as ‘a plastic whale’, featuring a distressing scene where 4kg of plastic was removed from a dead whale. As well as this they have commissioned art made from single use plastic in the shape of a whale, named ‘Plasticus’, which has toured across the country raising awareness of the issue.


‘Plasticus’ the single use plastic whale. Photograph: Sky Ocean Rescue



An interesting perspective to look at the success of financial instruments and incentives, is the single use plastic bag. Almost two years ago (5th October 2015) the UK government introduced a 5p charge for single use plastic bags. This is definitely something that I believe helped galvanise the movement against single use plastic and now it is a topic which is hard to ignore.


THE RESULTS Within a year of its introduction there was an 80% reduction in the consumption of single use plastic bags in the UK. When looking at British government research, the seven main retailers (Asda, Marks and Spencer’s, Sainsbury, Tesco, The Co-operative Group, Waitrose and Morrisons), between April 2016 to 2017, issued 6 billion fewer bags when compared to the previous year. This is a significant reduction for what on the face of it appears to be a relatively small financial charge. Beyond this, Tesco has announced that it plans to scrap 5p plastic bags, as a result customers must buy more expensive bags for life.


THE REASON …Prior to the 5p charge, you could be forgiven for not thinking about the lifecycle of plastic bags. Even though I was conscious of their impact and used ‘bags for life’, since the charge was introduced I now look at all forms of plastic (both single and multi-use) as unnecessary, taking my trusty backpack wherever I go.

According to the New Economic Foundation, there are essentially two reasons for the scheme’s success:

1)   It is based on evidence from psychological and behavioural economics: of how we actually behave in real life.

2)   Businesses have been unable to design or manipulate the scheme to their advantage; it is not voluntary and therefore they cannot opt out or act half heartedly.

The waste that plastic creates and the social and environmental impacts it has are negative externalities: a market failure. Without government intervention the charge on plastic bags would not have been introduced and we wouldn’t be where we are. The success of schemes such as this are evident not just in the UK, but across Europe and the rest of the world where similar initiatives have been introduced.

THE NEXT STEPS … We must reduce plastic, especially single use plastic, from our consumer lifecycle. Although the 5p charge is a good first step, we ultimately need to ban and replace such destructive items. We have gained momentum in the fight against plastic. We, as consumers must start being conscious of what we consume and the lifecycle of each product. If it takes financial incentives/penalties to create additional consciousness, then so be it, it is a small price to pay for securing the future health of the environment we live in.

The Scottish government has recently announced that they intend to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS) whereby plastic bottles have an additional cost which you can reclaim after returning said bottles, creating a closed loop system. Essentially you own the contents and borrow the bottle. People have been quick to mention that this is not necessarily a new scheme as it was previously done with glass bottles for several decades. A number of countries have adopted this scheme successfully including Germany, Norway and Finland. The DRS in Norway is incredibly successful as 96% of their plastic drinks bottles are returned by consumers and therefore put back into the system and recycled. Currently less than half of bottles in the UK are recycled; however, the impact in Scotland will most likely be gradual due to the time lag, as it takes time to set up crucial systems/infrastructure. It is time for the whole of the UK to adopt this scheme and reduce the impact of plastic bottles.


“Is it time to introduce charges to all forms of single use plastic?”


Financial interventions introduced by governments across the world are having a significant impact. If they are the key to triggering a shift in mind-set, is it time to introduce charges to all forms of single use plastic? We can charge for negative actions such as mentioned above and provide discounts for positive actions. Certain cafes have this already, where if you have a ‘cup for life’ they knock money off the price of your coffee, so why stop there?

If you were to be charged 5p for a straw at a bar, would you think twice about getting one?

If it costs you 10p for your plastic cutlery at lunch, would you start carrying around a metal set of cutlery with you? (Or at least wash and re-use the plastic set).


Photograph: Daniel Müller



“After your five-minute relationship with a straw it will be on the planet for longer than you will be alive”


Often these single use plastics have a very short usage time but they will remain in our ecosystem for well over a century. After your five-minute relationship with a straw it will be on the planet for longer than you will be alive. These associations are seldom made but the realities are astonishing.


ALTERNATIVES … There are alternatives to plastic that can help close the loop. You don’t have to be an eco-warrior to use them. Straws for example can be metal, made from bamboo or plant-based solutions. Plant-based solutions do exist, there are numerous companies working on this (some which I have come across include VEGWARE, Biopac and Avani). In Bali, Avani print the hashtag #IAMNOTPLASTIC on their straws, and they provide additional packaging which is made from 100% renewable resources.

It is important that these alternatives are encouraged so that they can be dispersed as widely as possible, resulting in a greater positive impact. If the government were to introduce the financial charges suggested above, it would increase the economic viability of alternatives and therefore their sphere of their influence.

Plastic’s footprint is wide reaching and plastic continues to infiltrate our water and food systems. The 5p charge has had a significant impact on reducing the consumption of single use plastic bags and has been credited as a having a large influence on reducing the presence of plastic bags in the sea surrounding the UK. I hope that soon the rest of the UK will follow Scotland’s lead on announcing the adoption of DRS. Now is the time for our government to demonstrate a strong position against plastic pollution and the harmful effects it is having on the environment. We must re-think our consumption habits and the impact they have, becoming conscious consumers.


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