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What does government do to tackle recycling?

7th April 2017

In the last few months, the ecoVeritas blog has covered some high profile government efforts to reduce some of the environmental consequences of modern society. This blog has covered plastic bags in the UK and abroad, coffee cups, French bans on supermarket waste and some plastic items, and a plastic bag ban in Queensland, Australia.

One theme which has emerged in this, is a reluctance of the UK government to apply bans. This is in stark contrast to the approach across the channel, which seems to favour bans as the first option. The UK government seems to have a strong preference for a voluntary approach, using market forces and consumer preference to guide change. This is very noticeable in the UK’s Producer Responsibility Obligation regulations and the importance of the PRN market. In contrast to France especially, but also to the government of Queensland, the powers-that-be in the UK do seem to prefer slightly softer expressions of power.

The significance, or seeming lack of it in the broader picture is constant across the issues focused on. In the UK, the carrier bag levy demanded much media attention, despite plastic carrier bags contributing between 0.1 and 1% of the UK’s plastic waste according to an estimate in The Telegraph. Similarly, the waste created by coffee cups, although sounding significant, is a fraction of the packaging waste accounted for in the UK grocery sector alone. Yet, this form of waste captured the public’s attention.

One conclusion which may be drawn from this is that government intervention focuses on smaller issues. However, the fact that regulation such as the Producer Responsibility Obligation (Packaging waste), the basis of ecoVeritas’ work, exists suggests otherwise. This regulation provides some incentive for producers to reduce packaging waste, a major source of waste in the UK. This regulation is, seemingly, poorly known and rarely discussed in media. Perhaps then, there is a focus on tangible, everyday forms of waste to which people can relate in mainstream media sources. This makes it appear, therefore, that government intervention does focus on these issues.

Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is open for debate. If attention is drawn to some issues, however small, this may be a positive step to larger change. However, in this, attention may be drawn away from the bigger picture of waste issues.