Government Bill proposes ban on plastic waste exports

Exporting polluting plastic waste to developing countries will be banned or restricted under a new law.

The rule presented to the UK Parliament is aimed at protecting poorer nations against becoming the dumping ground for unwanted rubbish.

The latest trade data shows that some 356,233 tonnes of plastic waste was sent for recycling from the UK to developing countries in 2018.  The plastic often ends up dumped in waterways.

The revised Environment Bill also rules that firms producing packaging must take more responsibility for products and materials they put on the market.

Environmentalists say the bill should also include measures to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place.

Other powers in the bill include the promise of legally-binding targets to reduce air pollution from ultra-fine particles known as PM2.5s.

There’s also a framework for long-term legal targets to support nature and improve the quality of air and water.

How strong is the new bill?

Green groups have welcomed much of the bill but they say that, in some ways, it still leaves environmental protection weaker than under the EU.

They are especially concerned about the role of a proposed new “independent” environmental watchdog that will replace the over-seeing power of the EU and hold ministers to account for their policies after Brexit.

The EU can threaten to fine nations that fail to meet environmental laws – that threat forced the UK to tackle air pollution more seriously.

The new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) won’t have the power to fine the government. What’s more, its members will be appointed by ministers, so critics say it won’t be fully independent.

The government says it will still hold ministers to account – including on the issue of the UK meeting its 2050 Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions target. 

Most of the clauses in the draft legislation were unveiled before the election. 

The revised bill introduces the promise of a two-yearly review of significant developments in international environmental legislation to ensure the UK keeps up with green protections.

What does the bill do for wildlife?

The bill will support the government’s 25-year plan to improve the state of nature by demanding that developers show they will actually improve conditions for wildlife. 

Critics say this may prove hollow unless the current balance of power between developers and local councils is shifted away from developers.

The bill also includes steps to give communities a greater say in the protection of local trees, following the row over tree felling in Sheffield.

There will be a more consistent approach to recycling across England to tackle the “postcode lottery” on waste collections.

Will plastic spoons face a levy?

There will be powers to create a deposit return scheme for drinks containers and a mechanism for introducing a levy on single-use plastics that could be applied to takeaway cutlery.

The Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “We are facing climate change and our precious natural environment is under threat. We need to take decisive action.

“We have set out our pitch to be a world leader on the environment as we leave the EU and the bill is a crucial part of achieving this aim.”

The bill promises that the environment will be at the heart of all government policy making – although environmentalists are asking how that squares with ministers’ plans to spend £28.8bn on roads.

Kiera Box from Friends of the Earth commented: “We welcome much of this bill, but we’re concerned about the OEP. It needs to have independent staff – not appointed by ministers. 

“It needs a guarantee of multi-year funding and it needs complete organisational independence from Defra (the government environment department).”

Will a waste ban solve the problem?

The group also said banning plastic waste to developing countries wouldn’t solve the problem as non-developing countries such as Turkey and Poland both host poorly-regulated dumps receiving UK plastic and other waste. 

Ruth Chambers from Greener UK – a coalition of environmental groups – fears that the bill doesn’t guarantee the avoidance of back-sliding from EU environment standards after Brexit.

She said: “This bill is not itself regressive – but it offers no legal guarantee to raise environmental standards in line with other nations in future.”

On the issue of air pollution, Dr Alison Cook from the British Lung Foundation, said: “This Bill is a step in the right direction and we welcome the commitment to set legally binding targets on air pollution, including PM2.5 which is the most dangerous form of pollution to human health.” 

“We now need to see a firm commitment from government that limits for PM2.5 will be set in line with those recommended by leading experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) and for them to be met by 2030 at the latest.”

Business groups commented: “The return of the Environment Bill sends an important signal to business, but the bill needs to clearly set out the expected ambition of future targets and how they will be set.”

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