Plastic pollution

There needs to be a step-change in the packaging used by the food and drink industry and how it is recycled

With the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy still expected by some eternal optimists to be published next week – after all, there isn’t much else going on – there were some encouraging signs today that ministers want to work with industry to tackle the threat to our planet. 

You don’t have to be David Attenborough to work out there needs to be a step-change in the packaging used by the food and drink industry – and, just as importantly, a dramatic improvement in the way it is recycled – if his dystopian vision for society is to be prevented.

But far too much of the government approach to date has been to look towards bans and taxation, rather than tackling the problems through innovation.

Today, however, there was an indication the government realises it has a responsibility to lead the UK’s businesses in finding the sort of new technology that may help tackle the crisis. 

A £60m fund on offer from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be used to encourage companies to come forward with ideas.

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Energy and clean growth minister Claire Perry has flagged up solutions such as using food waste to make recyclable plastic bags, developing smart bins to help consumers prevent waste, and new ‘living’ sell-by dates. 

While all these ideas are interesting and worthy, there is a suspicion that they are also something of gimmick. That the government, via UKRI, is running a series of competitions to win funding, re-enforces that impression of a scientific sideshow. 

Instead, the government needs to take this approach of co-operating with industry and use it across its environmental and industrial policy.

With the long-awaited waste strategy set to tackle the minefield of PRN reform, launch a controversial new DRS system and decide how taxes on single-use plastics will work, there is a massive danger the government’s approach could be disjointed.

If the UK really is to be a beacon of hope, as Perry suggests, we need far more than the knee-jerk reactions that have tended to dominate the political agenda on plastic.

The industry needs to be accountable, yes, but it also expects both a seat at the table and political leadership.

Whether that’s possible amid the chaos at Westminster, who knows?