Single Use Plastic: Does Brexit Mean Brexit For The UK As The EU Commits To Plastic Reduction By 2021? By Rafaella De Freitas and Tamara Cincik
From carrier bags, car tyres and packaging, to micro-beads in skin care products, toothpaste and synthetic clothing microfibres, plastic is everywhere. We are surrounded by plastic, it envelops our food, our phones, our homes, our lives. So the news this week that scientists in Europe have found up to 9 types of plastic within all of those who took part in a Europe-wide research programme,is deeply worrying, but perhaps not unsurprising. Lead researcher Dr Philipp Schwabi, from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, said: "Of particular concern is what this means to us, and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases.”
Even if an item is not made of plastic, its production, transportation or usage will involve other plastic materials. The low cost, practicality and durability of plastic has made it the default setting for manufacturing. The effort and cost to reuse and recycle plastics is higher than that of producing more, so guess what’s happened within a generation: we have gone from brown paper bags to carry our carrots and grapes at the greengrocers, to single use plastic containers, and clingfilm covering single item products in supermarkets all over the world. As well as leaking toxic chemicals into the environment, polluting water and poisoning animals, the plastics that end up in the ocean are being ingested by fish and making their way into the food we eat. This problem is not only a worry for environmentalists – we can be convinced by the economic loss generated by on-going production and disposal - whereby resources are invested in producing a perfectly reusable material that is immediately discarded.
We are in a frustrating position: apart from recycling, which delays rather than prevents the harm, there are no solutions to the plastic problem. And consumer-led movements, such as the ‘choose to refuse’ plastic free July campaign are great in raising awareness, but only touch the tip of the plastic iceberg. Earlier this year this prompted a group of shoppers to stage a ‘plastic attack’ in a Tesco branch in Bath, where participants ripped off the plastic packaging and left them at the tills. The ‘attack’ brings to light the overwhelming burden of UK shoppers who have little to no alternatives and limited channels to properly dispose of plastic. But for real change to happen, people changing their habits is not enough – all players have to be called on for accountability, including manufacturers, investors and policy makers.
Last Wednesday the European Parliament voted 571-53 to endorse the ‘DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment’. As explained in our Fashionista’s Guide to the EU, a directive is a legislative act that sets out a goal that all EU countries must achieve, but it gives countries agency in deciding how such goals will be pursued. As well as aiming to raise awareness and reduce the consumption of single use plastics, the directive proposes a market reduction on plastic straws, cutlery, balloon sticks and cotton-bud sticks. The ban was welcomed and celebrated across news outlets and social media, which captures the sentiment of growing frustration towards excessive and unnecessary amounts of plastic that people do not want but are left to deal with.
But the UK’s decision to leave the EU poses a worrying but important question – will Brexit prevent the UK from benefiting from the Directive? Our EU expert, Ezster Kantor replies: “In theory the UK could divert after Brexit and loosen regulation but it wouldn`t make much sense. There is so much money and energy spent on researching alternatives for plastic, this is a really interesting field.”
Recent allegations that good sense is not always a given in politics, has raised the worry for many in the UK that a post Brexit Britain might be drowning in single use plastic, while our European neighbours develop biodegradable or alternative solutions. So it is reassuring to see The Plastics Bill, presented by Geraint Davies and supported by Zac Goldsmith, John Mc Nally, Layla Moran, Mary Creagh (Chair of the Environment Audit Committee), Steve Double, Chris Williamson, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Yasmin Qureshi, Daniel Zeichner, Susan Elan Jones and Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi. The Bill is scheduled for it’s second reading today, and aims to reinforce and maintain the EU’s decision, even after Brexit:
“Require the Secretary of State to set, measure, enforce and report on targets for the reduction and recycling of plastic packaging; to require that such targets following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union at least match such targets set by the European Union; to establish enforcement mechanisms in respect of such targets and associated provisions; to make provision for support for the development of sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging; and for connected purposes. “
The Bill also aims to re-direct the costs of recycling, reuse and other forms of waste recovery from public authorities to the producers of plastic packaging and retailers who use it. An independent Plastics Agency is being called for, which would have the power to take the government to court in case regulations and requirements are not being met.
As well as the obvious environmental benefits, the reduction of plastics and a call for alternatives also generates the potential for economic growth with opportunities for innovative and creative solutions, such as Polipop (previously WithLula) an exciting start-up who won the 2018 Mayor’s Entrepreneur Competition with their zero-waste, fully-flushable sanitary products delivered directly to customers. Fashion is one of the biggest polluters in the world, and the major culprit behind the harmful microfibres being washed into the oceans,. The implementation of such a Bill would call for a complete reassessment of the industry: from the fabrics and materials used to packaging, tagging and transport.
This is exciting news for the UK’s growing sustainable fashion entrepreneurs and brands seeking for an incentive or opportunity to showcase their alternatives to throwaway fast fashion. The V&A’s ‘Fashioned From Nature’ exhibition curated by Edwina Ehrman boasts a range of eco-friendly, recycled redesigns and plastic free substitutes. From a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk by Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney to a Calvin Klein dress worn by actor Emma Watson to the 2016 Met Gala which was made from recycled plastic bottles, created as part of The Green Carpet Challenge.
There is a clear red thread from traditional artisan skills based on timeworn craft skills, using integrated local working practices and radical new developments, where science and tech meet sustainability. Is fact now following fiction in a Margaret Atwood-like vision of biotechnology, such as her famous “climate genre” Maddaddam Trilogy ?
The potential restrictions on plastic and microfibres could be another push to grow the already-burgeoning sustainable fashion industry in the UK post Brexit (as covered in Tamara’s article for Eco-Age last week ) to not only maintain, but expand its global reputation as ethical and sustainability incubators. From brands such as Katharine Hamnett, whose famous slogan tees are made on the Isle of Wight by eco-cotton pioneers Teemill, to new radicals such as Paradise Row who produce their vegetable tanned leather handbags in the East-End, or Blackhorse Lane Ateliers who create selvedge and organic raw cotton denim, with a commitment to growing a maker community at their renovated factory in Walthamstow.
This is what we at Fashion Roundtable will be advocating for post-Brexit: a UK fashion industry which continues to lead in the exciting space where craft, artisan and ethical FashionTech coalesce into a transparent and truly sustainable fashion industry. We have to ensure that leaving the EU does not mean deregulation. We need a future vision where the UK is not an isolated island drowning in a pool of plastic and instead showcase one where any plastic we do create is reused to make something relevant and long-lasting, be that a shoe, a sock, or even a red carpet dress.