In May 1971, Friends of the Earth deposited thousands of empty bottles outside the Cadbury Schweppes London HQ. At the time, protesting about the ‘throwaway society’ was seen by many as a fringe concern.
Today, by contrast, the issue occupies political centre-stage. The reaction two weeks ago, in response to the UK Government announcing a deposit-scheme for plastic bottles, was remarkable for its lack of controversy. The scheme will allow consumers to collect small cash sums in return for used drinks containers, following in the footsteps of successful similar initiatives in Germany and across the world.
For many, this marks a welcome (and long overdue) step forward by UK policy-makers seen to be dragging their feet amidst widespread dismay about the state of our Blue Planet.
Since the 1971 ‘bottle dump’, a tide of environmentalism has pushed concerns for the planet, and recognition of human impact, plainly into public consciousness. By 1990, around 75% of the British public were already in agreement that ‘ordinary people’ ought to do more to protect the environment - even if this meant paying higher prices. Today, the situation provokes a more apocalyptic response: ComRes research for the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) found that 81% of UK citizens consider environmental damage through air, land or water pollution to be a global catastrophic risk, while 84% feel that they should try to prevent future ‘climate catastrophies’, even if this has an impact on living standards.
Legislators are not exempt from this sentiment, with MPs posing alongside ‘Plasticus’ the sperm-whale while pledging to #PassonPlastic, and a recent ComRes poll revealing that 80% of House of Lords Members support a plastic bottle deposit-scheme.
‘Plasticus’, the model sperm-whale made out of plastic bottles
Despite this apparent consensus, however, the UK continues to produce alarmingly high levels of plastic waste; in 2017 alone, it is estimated that UK supermarkets produced between 800,000 and 1 million tonnes of unrecyclable plastic waste.
Clearly, then, consensus alone is insufficient to effect widespread change. The challenge for UK policy-makers is how to harness this opinion and use it to alter the daily habits and consumption patterns of the public.
Such an approach has worked before: the 2015 plastic bag levy, which introduced a 5p charge on non-reusable bags, reduced UK plastic bag usage by 80% almost overnight. It demonstrated that, when prompted, British consumers could adapt their behaviour in line with campaigns that, though long-desirable in theory, had been previously impossible to implement.
Today, for a Government lacking a strong political mandate, conjuring up the confidence to push the British public in this way has understandably proved challenging. Indeed, the public’s expectations of what Government can deliver on behavioural change are modest: last year, ComRes found that just 38% of British citizens have confidence in the national Government to respond effectively to global risks such as pollution.
Perhaps, then, last week’s announcement represents a wider turn of the plastic tide. With public consensus on the need to reduce plastic waste firmly cemented, it would seem that policy-makers now feel able to nudge us, albeit gradually, towards the kind of sustainable consumers many of us wish we could be.