Q&A with Ms. Sarah Mooney, Head of Science & Innovation, British High Commission, about the UK’s efforts to tackle plastic waste

Q. What are the efforts the UK is doing to tackle plastic waste, especially those that can be useful learning for India?

A. The UK is making extensive efforts to address the problems of waste and waste leakage into the environment. First amongst these is a requirement for all waste operators (domestic and commercial) to, where possible, collect recyclable waste such as plastics, glass, paper and card and metals separately from other waste so that these can be reprocessed. This policy, in combination with a tax on the waste sent to landfills, helps to ensure that as much waste as possible is recycled. Recent efforts to target plastic waste flows specifically have included introducing a nationwide charge for single-use plastic bags, announcing a consultation on a total ban on the sale of plastic straws, plastic stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in the UK and looking at measures to minimise the waste and maximise the recycling of plastic lined paper cups. Since its introduction in 2015, the plastic bag charge itself has reduced the use of these bags by 83% in England alone.

Q. Is there any opportunity you envisage for collaborations between UK and India on this front? Which are the potential areas?

A. The UK launched two major initiatives at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which took place in London in April. The first was the creation of a Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA) – an agreement between the member states to join forces in the fight against plastic pollution. Britain, together with CCOA joint-chair Vanuatu, will call on other Commonwealth countries to pledge action on plastics, be this by a ban on microbeads, a commitment to cutting down on single-use plastic bags, or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. The CCOA was supplemented by a new international research initiative, the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework. The UK will contribute £25 million, and India has given their in principle approval to participating. Addressing the issue of plastic waste entering the marine environment will require action from all countries, including here in India to prevent further damage to our oceans and the rivers, such as the Ganges, that feed them.

Q. Finding workable business-models for alternative products to plastic packaging will require R&D investment. What is the UK’s plan on R&D investment?

A. Initiatives such as the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework, as mentioned above, will form a key plank in ensuring that the UK and our international partners have access to the best science and technology to underpin decision making and ensure sound policy. Domestically, the Chancellor earlier this year announced a £20 million innovation fund to help UK businesses and universities develop the technologies needed to enable us to achieve our target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Q. Are British companies investing to make alternative products to plastics?

A. There are a number of businesses developing plastic alternatives, including bio-degradable bags. The UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy is considering whether there is a need for biodegradable product standards as part of its Bioeconomy Strategy. It will be important to ensure that new products coming to market deliver genuine environmental benefits and don’t simply create new or different problems.

Q. The UK is engaging with the Commonwealth, G-20 and the EU for international cooperation on plastics waste. What is the nature of engagement that it has with them, and can it do the same with the countries across South Asia?

A. In addition to the Commonwealth Blue Charter and the newly created Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, the UK engages internationally in a large number of fora to improve waste management and reduce plastic pollution in the oceans. The UK is a signatory to a number of international protocols including the London Protocol, OSPAR, G7 and G20 and we will continue to work through these to work collaboratively with others to raise global ambition. We hope that India will consider signing up to the London Protocol and CCOA in future.

The recently announced Commonwealth Initiatives are intended to provide support to India and a number of her South Asian neighbours to take action to tackle plastic waste, particularly those wastes that end up in the marine environment.

Q. India has developed some prowess in R&D in alternative uses of plastics. The plastic-roads project is one example. Do you think these Indian projects can be replicated in the UK? After all, collaborations have to flow two-way.

A. Initiatives such as the plastic-roads work are very interesting and may in future find an application in the UK. However, there remain issues about sourcing the volume of plastics required, as well as a need to ensure that these programmes are genuinely sustainable and deliver environmental benefit. One of the objectives of the Research and Innovation Framework is to ensure that initiatives such as these can be reviewed and the scientific impact fully understood.

More generally, on Indo-UK collaborations, one of the reasons for increasing our investment in R&D collaborations with India from less than £1 million in 2008 to over £400 million by 2021 is because we recognize India’s excellence and great potential in this space, where we have shared beliefs in the role of R&D in finding solutions to our societal challenges. In fact through the Newton-Bhabha partnership we are working together to address not just the problems specific to our respective countries, but also those which could have broader implications for other nations.

Q. What efforts should be done to deepen awareness and acceptability amongst the business community about the EPR challenge? EU states like Belgium practice self-restraint, but the mind-set of Indian companies is far from self-restraint. What is your view on how best to tackle this?

A. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regimes are designed to make producers of certain products responsible for the costs of collecting, treating, and recycling those products at the end of their life. In the UK, there are currently EPR measures for end-of-life vehicles, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), batteries, and packaging. The packaging regulations are currently being reviewed, to reform and expand on the obligations for producers. The aim of EPR regulation is to encourage businesses to minimize waste arising from these products and promote their re-use, ensure the waste products are treated and meet recovery and recycling targets for the waste materials, and design products by reducing material use and enhancing reusability and recyclability.

The UK Government is currently looking at how to strengthen the requirements within these regimes, such as by ensuring producers cover the full cost of managing products at the end of their life and is also considering extending EPR to other products.

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