The UK Plastics Pact 100 days: From ambition to action

Marcus Gover, CEO, WRAP

The UK Plastics Pact was borne out of the unprecedented ‘perfect storm’ of concern, and subsequent determination, to tackle plastic pollution and the damage it was inflicting on our environment.

100 days has passed since we launched our pioneering initiative which has brought together government, business and citizens under a collective ambition to transform the plastic system and keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment.

In that short time, we have been hard at work, supporting members to make changes, convening and sharing expertise, helping to inform policy reforms, and laying the important foundations for success in achieving our ambitious targets.

Everyone involved in the Pact is aware of both the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to fix the broken plastic system, and the scale of the challenge ahead. We are also aware of the weight of expectation resting on our shoulders.

The UK Plastics Pact is the first of a series of planned initiatives in other countries, as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy. So, the world is watching and waiting to follow; and an enlightened public will not accept anything other than radical change.

And that is what we are embarking on with the Pact. Change right across the system – from the way we design, produce and consume plastic to how it is collected, sorted and reprocessed.

This means a complete rethink and redesign of the linear ‘take, make, dispose’ throwaway culture which has predominated in the past, to the circular model of the future. 

This also means, importantly, retaining the critical role plastic plays in protecting goods, preventing infection and particularly in reducing food waste; but ensuring  the plastic we do produce never becomes harmful waste.

So, it’s a complex and ambitious undertaking.

It starts with reduction, which is why the first target aims to completely eliminate unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic.

And while recycling is part of the solution, and is a major focus of The UK Plastic Pact’s targets, it is not the only one. It sits alongside innovation, design, exploring alternatives and increasing reuse as a part of a holistic approach to change.

This is no quick fix. It will take time to see change come into fruition – we are after all committed to a wholescale reform of the current system, which has taken years to evolve. At the same time 2025 is not far away so we have to continue at scale and at pace.

The birth of The UK Plastics Pact was also recognition that that scale and pace of change is too big for one single body, business or organisation. It requires committed and collaborative action from all of us – governments, business and all of us as citizens – both at home and on-the-go.

But success will also require investment in the current infrastructure to enable us to take more responsibility for our own waste here in the UK. This is especially pertinent as we begin to feel the impact of the import restrictions imposed by China and others, and the corresponding need for us to have the capacity to process high quality, desirable material on our own shores.

We have been delighted by the response and commitment from innovators, designers, manufacturers, retailers and the reprocessing industry to embrace that need for radical change and work together with us.

We now have 64 business members and 22 supporters. Together they are responsible for over 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold through UK supermarkets. On top of that we have more than 400 businesses, NGOs and associations who have requested to be informed about progress. That’s a powerful platform for change.

It’s been great to see the bold initiatives which have been implemented by our members and supporters. 

We held our first meeting of the Advisory Group in June, and I want to thank those who agreed to be part of that important group and the expertise and insight they bring. At the same time, the Collaborative Action Groups we have set up are already starting to look at specific aspects of the plastics conundrum. It will lead to potentially ground-breaking work on how we collectively define what is ‘problematic’ single-use plastic, and what is recyclable, reusable and compostable, as well as how we tackle challenges of flexible film.

Whilst businesses are critical, they are only part of the solution.

On behalf of the Pact, we have been working to encourage policy change which will encourage and incentivise positive action. A hugely important piece of work has been the consultations WRAP, along with INCPEN and the Advisory Committee on Packaging, conducted across the industry to explore possible ways of reforming current packaging regulations.

There was widespread support for radical reform as a way of reducing the environment impact caused by the way we use and dispose of packaging, especially plastic packaging.

Having that systemic year-on-year funding could be a game-changer – incentivising local authorities to collect plastics and supporting the investment in our own recycling infrastructure.

I was encouraged by the Secretary of State’s response and his recognition that the recommendations would inform policy decision making. The need for government policy to underpin the commitments made by business will be key to us achieving the ambitious goals we have laid out in The UK Plastics Pact.

In the devolved administrations, it has also been encouraging to see the commitments from governments to taking action to tackle plastic pollution.

Along with business and government action, we are all of us, as citizens, pivotal to success of The UK Plastics Pact.

And so, we will be providing the public with the right information and motivation to reduce, reuse and recycle and where possible to reduce our plastic packaging. Now, more than ever, it is important to increase the public’s confidence in recycling and ensure we are helping them to do the right thing. We’ll also be working to tackle the inconsistency in household plastic recycling which we know causes confusion and frustration. Look out for Recycle Now’s exciting campaign to mark Recycle Week in September.

Hot on the heels on that in October will be the first major gathering of members and supporters when we will review progress and look forward to what is coming next and to launch the high-level roadmap with interim milestones to share with members so we can set expectations and chart progress towards reaching the 2025 targets.

We’ve come a long way in our first 100 days. But there is still a lot to do. We have the collective will, from government, from business, and the power within us, to lead the global fight against plastic pollution and change our relationship with plastic for good. Together we are.