Plastic free July: three ways Wales is tackling plastic pollution

Published 10/07/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

Plastic waste is everywhere. It’s the most prevalent form of marine debris, most plastic doesn’t biodegrade, lasts centuries in landfill or the natural environment, and eventually breaks down into microplastics. And so much of it seems unnecessary.

The UN Environment Programme says systemic change is needed to stop the flow of plastic waste ending up in the environment. Its report, Turning off the Tap, published to inform the development of a legally binding plastics treaty by 2024, highlights ways of reducing problematic and unnecessary plastic use. These include redesigning the system to move away from a ‘throwaway culture’, shifting the market towards sustainable alternatives, and the importance of designing plastic to be recyclable.

To mark Plastic-Free July, a global movement of people refusing single-use plastics for a month, we take a look at three ways the Welsh Government is tackling plastic pollution, and delivering commitments made in its 2021 circular economy strategy Beyond Recycling.

Deposit Return Scheme

Under a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) consumers are charged a sum of money as a deposit upfront when they buy, for example, a drink in a single-use container. This can be redeemed when the empty container is returned, typically through a reverse vending machine, or manually to a retailer.  The aim of a DRS is to increase the amount of containers captured for recycling, and substantially reduce littering i.e. redesigning the system to move away from a ‘throwaway culture’.

DRS proposals were jointly consulted on (by the Welsh Government, the UK Government for England and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland) for a second time in 2021. Governments jointly responded in January 2023. Whilst detailed information on how a DRS will be delivered in Wales is not yet known, key points include:

  • Materials in scope of DRS in Wales are Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles; steel and aluminium cans; and glass bottles, in line with the approach also proposed in Scotland. Glass bottles will not be captured by DRS in England and Northern Ireland. This disparity between the schemes has led to some controversy, as discussed in our recent article;
  • Regulations (made using powers in the Environment Act 2021) will be used to establish a DRS in Wales (separate regulations will be made for England/Northern Ireland) which will set the framework for, and obligations under, the schemes. These regulations are currently being drafted, with the aim of being in force by the end of 2023;
  • A Deposit Management Organisation(s) (DMO) will be appointed (through an application process set out in the regulations) to run the DRS. It will be responsible for managing the overall operation of the DRS, as well as meeting the collection targets set out in regulations. The aim is for a DMO to be appointed by summer 2024; and
  • Governments have proposed a DRS commencement date for of 1 October 2025 to be included in the regulations, however it’s stated that this is a “stretching target date”.

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for packaging place the disposal costs of packaging on its producer. Whilst there is a current producer responsibility system for packaging in the UK, it doesn’t cover the full disposal costs.

Proposals for a UK-wide EPR scheme were jointly consulted on (by all four UK nations), and focused on moving the cost of dealing with packaging waste away from households, local taxpayers and councils, and onto the packaging producers. This is in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, where those who make pollution-causing products, pay the full costs when they become waste, which will:

… provide a financial incentive for producers to reduce the amount of packaging they place on the market and to improve the recyclability of packaging.

EPR will be implemented in a phased manner from 2024 (was 2023), and will focus on how producers pay for household packaging waste, and packaging in street bins managed by local authorities. It will also introduce mandatory labelling of a packaging’s recyclability, and annual packaging waste recycling targets to 2030.

The Packaging Waste (Data Collection and Reporting) (Wales) Regulations 2023 have recently been laid before the Senedd, and require the collection and reporting of producers’ packaging data from July to December 2023. This data will be used to calculate fees the producer needs to pay. These regulations are intended to be in place for a short time, after which they’ll be revoked and replaced by regulations to establish the EPR for packaging scheme, which will also include data collection and reporting provisions.

Single-use plastic

Beyond Recycling, includes a headline action to “phase out unnecessary single-use items, especially plastic”. This is being tackled through the recent Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Act 2023, which makes it an offence for a person to supply or offer to supply (including for free) unnecessary, commonly littered single-use plastic products, to a consumer in Wales. Our Bill summary outlines the intended effect of the then Bill, and summarises its main provisions.

The first phase of the ban is due to come into force in autumn 2023 and will ban:

  • Plates –including paper plates with a laminated plastic surface;
  • Cutlery – for example forks, spoons, knives;  
  • Drinks stirrers – those designed for stirring drinks or liquid food; 
  • Cups made of expanded or foamed extruded polystyrene; 
  • Takeaway food containers made of expanded or foamed extruded polystyrene; 
  • Sticks for balloons;  
  • Plastic-stemmed cotton buds; and
  • Drinking straws – with exemptions so people who need them to eat and drink safely and independently can continue to have them.

Phase 2 will come into force “from 2024” and will ban:

  • Plastic single-use carrier bags;
  • Polystyrene lids for cups and takeaway food containers; and
  • Oxo-degradable plastic products.

These are the items to be banned through the Act, but aren’t included in the list of agreed exclusions to the UK Internal Market Act 2020 ‘market access principles’. This means that as these items are permitted in other parts of the UK, they can continue to be supplied in Wales as long as they are produced in, or imported into, other parts of the UK.

What’s next?

The Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, recently told the Senedd she wanted to “explore whether our new single-use plastics [Act]” could be used to ban artificial grass, but back-tracked only days later. However Minsters are able to amend the list of banned items in the Act, giving them the ability to react swiftly to emerging issues. In principle, this could be used to tackled single-use vapes, which include plastic, are not easily recycled, and are increasingly being found as litter across Wales. The Scottish Government has pledged to take action on single-use vapes this autumn.

There was some disappointment from environmental NGOs and Dŵr Cymru that wet wipes containing plastics were not included in the single-use plastic Act. The Minister told the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee that the “big issue with wet wipes” is labelling, which isn’t devolved to Wales. However the UK Government’s recent Plan for Water includes a commitment to consult on banning the use of plastic in wet wipes. At a recent Inter-Governmental meeting, Welsh Ministers highlighted the shared ambition to address the issue of wet wipes, and the benefits of working together on this issue.

Article by Lorna Scurlock, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament