YouGov research shows a stark divide between MPs and the public over government intervention to address packaging waste, such as taxes or bans.

The UK produces over 12.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year. While recycling rates for materials like metal, glass and cardboard hover at around 70%, the rate for plastic – a particularly problematic material due to its persistence and environmental impact – stagnates at 44%.

This current situation with packaging waste in the UK poses a significant question for policymakers – how much should the government intervene to reduce the use of single-use plastic?

In the ongoing battle against packaging waste, a clear difference has emerged between the perceptions of MPs and the general public. Recent research conducted by YouGov for Cavendish has shed light on the hesitance among MPs towards government intervention to tackle packaging waste, in stark contrast to the eagerness displayed by the public for decisive action.

Public want more action on single-use plastic

While only 49% of MPs express support for intervention on single-use plastic packaging, a significant 68% of the public advocate for such measures. Similar perception gaps are evident across other packaging materials, including cardboard, metal and glass. These findings underscore a substantial divide in political opinions, with Labour MPs showing a greater inclination towards intervention compared with their Conservative counterparts.

David Button

David Button, head of insight at Cavendish

Drilling into the results in terms of materials, the chasm widened. Only 27% of MPs endorse intervention in single-use cardboard packaging, while 52% of the public favours such measures. When it came to single-use metal packaging, 22% of MPs backed intervention in single-use metal packaging, compared with 49% of public support. Just 16% of MPs favour intervention in single-use glass packaging, in contrast to 39% of the public.

With a general election on the horizon, what could a change in government mean for packaging waste policy and the food industry? Labour’s preference for interventionist policies could see a shift in the use of plastic packaging under a Labour government. As shadow food minister Daniel Zeichner put it during a fringe event at the party conference last year, “Labour just is more likely to intervene in markets”. Coupled with Labour MPs demonstrating higher levels of support for intervention, will we see a Labour government take harder measures to reduce the amount of packaging waste that is produced each year?

How will the government takle packaging waste?

In the short term, probably not: it looks like Labour won’t deviate too far from the current reforms that are moving through, with shadow environment secretary Steve Reed stating that “if [the Resources & Waste Strategy] is an easy win, let’s have it”. However, in the longer term, it is not out of the question that we will see Labour move to ban certain products or incentivise the use of others should the cost of living crisis ease.

The current government has gone some way to tackle plastic packaging waste, and the public stance has shifted a lot on the issue in recent years, with retailers wise to the impact its continued use can have on their reputations. Industry-backed initiatives, like Asda’s decision to replace plastic trays with more sustainable alternatives, demonstrate the evolving landscape of packaging waste management and the role of corporate responsibility in driving change.

On certain policy areas, Labour has made itself as small a target as possible for the Conservatives, as the Tories look to scare off voters by trying to tar Labour as economically incompetent and bad for voters’ pockets. With the polls suggesting Labour will form the next government – or at least be the largest party – it will be interesting to see just how far it is prepared to go to tackle plastic packaging waste.