Government is treating the symptom, not the cause of plastic pollution

Embargo: 00:01 Tuesday 10 March 2020
Libby Peake Libby PeakeHead of resource policy020 7630

In response to public pressure, the government is tackling plastic pollution by addressing individual uses of plastic, like some plastic bags and microbeads. While bans on items likely to damage the environment are necessary, this approach completely fails to deal with the root of the problem and, worse, is storing up new environmental issues for the future, says a new report by the think tank Green Alliance. [1]

The report points out that the UK’s throwaway habit is not being addressed by government strategy on resources and waste. The current piecemeal approach to preventing marine plastic pollution is not only unlikely to deliver significant improvement, it risks detracting from the wider need to improve the sustainability of resources used and cut waste across the country. 

For example, the UK’s ban on microbeads in wash off cosmetics was introduced in June 2018 and described by the government as “world leading”. But this ban ignores 90 per cent of the intentionally added microplastics that still pollute the environment. [2]

Similarly, the new ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has pushed companies to substitute plastic for other materials in these products, without reducing their single use nature. This will continue to cause unnecessary environmental problems. [3]

The new Environment Bill continues this trend, introducing powers to implement charges for single use plastic items along the lines of the 5p carrier bag charge. As it stands, charges for single use items made from other materials will not be possible. [4]

The new analysis explains why a plastic-only approach is not working, and says that the whole system of resource use and management needs a fundamental rethink to prevent environmental harm. Endemic problems of the current system include:
  • Health risks of persistent harmful chemicals in food packaging
There is justified public concern about the presence of harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics. But they are also present in other materials that come in contact with food. BPA is present as a coating in some metal containers. PFAS, a group of toxic chemicals linked to high cholesterol, lower fertility and testicular cancer, is used to improve water resistance in paper, card and compostable takeaway containers and food packaging. Research in December 2019 found it in packaging on sale in each of the nine major UK supermarkets sampled, as well as many takeaway outlets. [5] This points to the need for an urgent review of regulations for all food packaging, not just plastic.
  • Poor management of compostable plastics leading to unintended consequences
    The use of compostable plastics is rising in response to concerns about plastic pollution. But they do not always degrade as people expect and require a separate collection and treatment system, which is often lacking or inadequate. For example, the Houses of Parliament switched to compostable packaging in October 2018. Even though it provided dedicated composting bins, all of the material collected in the first six months had to be sent to incineration because of contamination with other materials. [6] While this has now been addressed on the parliamentary estate, it is one example of how the whole system needs to be managed properly to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Limited impact of the plastic bag tax
    A recent study by Greenpeace and the EIA showed that the charge for single use plastic carrier bags has perversely led to a dramatic rise in the use of thicker ‘bags for life’, with UK families now buying 54 a year on average. This is potentially increasing their total use of plastic and shows the need to ensure that such incentives really do lead to an overall drop in material use, rather than just targeting ‘single use’ plastic. [7]
The report sets out how to solve the problem, highlighting that the government should widen its policy focus to tackle all resources and all environmental impacts in a more systemic approach.
Key principles of this should ensure that uses of any material should meet three overarching requirements: safety, sustainability and efficiency.

Finding ways to reduce the amount of materials used overall should be its top priority, and uses for certain types of applications should be eliminated altogether for a wider range of materials, not just certain plastics.
Environmental harms should be systematically considered when evaluating materials and exposure to all hazardous substances should be prevented as a matter of urgency. The report emphasises priority actions for paper, aluminium, steel, glass, and both conventional and compostable plastics.

Colin Church, chief executive of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and chair of the Circular Economy Task Force, said:
“The way we consume and waste resources in the UK is unsustainable, and it’s not just plastic that has an impact. What is needed now is an approach that leads the UK to a truly circular economy where all materials are properly valued and any problems they cause are minimised as much as possible.”

Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said:
“Removing one material from a dysfunctional system still leaves us with a dysfunctional system. Plastic pollution is a particularly visible sign that we don’t properly value the resources we use and shows that environmental harm is hardwired into the throwaway culture. The government has to get to the root of the problem to change this, rather than only tackling high profile symptoms in a piecemeal way.”

Notes for editors
Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 40 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.
[1] Fixing the system: Why a circular economy for all materials is the only way to solve the plastic problem is available at:
The research is published as part of Green Alliance’s work for the Circular Economy Task Force, a business led a forum for policy, innovation and business thinking on resource use in the UK. The current members include Kingfisher, PwC, SUEZ, Veolia, Viridor and Walgreens Boots Alliance. The analysis and recommendations in this report are solely those of Green Alliance and do not necessarily reflect the views of the experts consulted or the members of the task force
[2] This is based on analysis conducted at the EU level. The range of estimations for release is often quite large, and covers the whole of the EU. The EU has also studied the release into the environment of microplastics that have not been intentionally added and found that such sources account for 176,300 tonnes of releases each year, nearly five times as many as intentionally added microplastics. See: European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), August 2019, Annex XV restriction report: microplastics, available at: 
[3] See Defra news story, 3 March 2020, “Legislation to ban plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds enters Parliament”, available at: 
[4] See, HM Government, 2020, Environment Bill, available at:
[5] Fidra, 2020, Forever chemicals in the food aisle: PFAS content of UK supermarket and takeaway food packaging. Available at:
[6] The Footprint, 2019, ‘Footprint investigation: Parliament burnt by compostable pledge’, available at: After this was exposed, a bespoke supply chain that allowed composting was established. However, many of the ordinary cafes and other managed facilities that are also increasingly introducing single use compostables, have little influence over infrastructure and supply chains to ensure proper treatment.
[7] See: Greenpeace and EIA, 2019, Checking out on plastics II: breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets, available at:

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