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At last there is a plan to tackle plastic problem

Terry smiling headWho would have thought a humble cauliflower would cause such a furore? A shopper’s objection to seeing sliced caulis sold in plastic bags at Marks & Spencer went viral on social media and has become a highlight of today’s statement by Theresa May on eradicating “needless” use of plastic packaging.

M&S has withdrawn the product – on sale at £2 when the same item can be bought at a corner shop grocer for 69p – after consumers made it clear that they saw it as symptomatic of the plastics problem. In another case yesterday there were complaints about a supermarket selling plastic-wrapped coconuts.

Mrs May’s pledge shows that at last Britain is determined to tackle the packaging waste issue. It’s an issue that was recently highlighted in this column on the back of the campaign to cut down on plastic straws. The Scottish government is now banning the sale of cotton buds.

Under Mrs May’s plans supermarkets will be urged to introduce “plastic-free” aisles, although Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe has already said this is just tokenism. He may be right. It suggests a half-hearted attempt at dealing with the problem.

The introduction of more taxes on single-use items such as takeaway containers and coffee cups is not the answer. The extra cost may deter some from buying, but the real solution is to change the product and ban non-recyclable plastic containers.

Coffee drinkers are being encouraged to take their own cups to coffees shops and some retailers, including Pret A Manger, are behind this idea. It’s a good start. However, it has its limitations. The carrier bag levy may have seen shoppers go back to old-fashioned shopping bags, but they also have the advantage of being portable and shoppers generally carry bags full of shopping to their cars.

Not so with cups. Many commuters buy their skinny lattes on the way to work. What are they – particularly men without a bag – supposed to do with their used cups? Also, coffee shops understandably object when asked to wash them out before or after use.

At least we are making some progress on this issue and the public is making its views known. It’s a classic example of how social media in particular can be put to good use.

But – and there is always a but – the clampdown has too many loopholes and Mrs May’s ban will not come into effect until 2042. With eight million tonnes of plastic reaching the sea every year that means a lot of dead wildlife will be paying for consumers’ waste for a long time yet.


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