Action to curb the use of carrier bags, straws or microbeads fails to deal with the root of the plastic pollution problem, a report has warned.
While bans on items that are likely to harm the environment are necessary, the Government’s strategy on waste is not addressing the UK’s “throwaway” habits, the report by environmental think tank Green Alliance said.
And simply substituting plastic with other materials in products, without reducing their throwaway nature, could be storing up other environmental problems.
The Government has imposed a levy on single-use plastic bags, banned microbeads from use in wash-off cosmetics, and aims to ban plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in response to calls to curb plastic pollution.
It also plans to bring in a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content, which Green Alliance said had helped increase investment in plastic recycling facilities, but could go further.
Overall, the think tank said the “plastic-only” approach is not working, and the whole system of using and managing resources needs a fundamental rethink.
The organisation points to the health risks of chemicals used to improve water resistance in paper, card and compostable takeaway containers and food packaging, and problems with disposing of compostable plastics.
The plastic bag charge has led to an increase in purchases of “bags for life” which can push up the overall amount of plastic being used, research suggests.
A future system should ensure that all materials, including plastic, are properly valued throughout their lifecycle, the report said.
A top priority should be to reduce the amount of materials used overall, as well as reducing the damage and impacts of different products.
Environmental harms should be systematically considered, to tackle impacts such as forests being cut down for paper or the greenhouse gas emissions of aluminium.
And exposure to all hazardous substances should be prevented as a matter of urgency, the report warned.
Colin Church, chief executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and chairman of the Circular Economy Task Force, said: “The way we consume and waste resources in the UK is unsustainable, and it’s not just plastic that has an impact.
“What is needed now is an approach that leads the UK to a truly circular economy where all materials are properly valued and any problems they cause are minimised as much as possible.”
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said: “Removing one material from a dysfunctional system still leaves us with a dysfunctional system.
“Plastic pollution is a particularly visible sign that we don’t properly value the resources we use and shows that environmental harm is hardwired into the throwaway culture.
“The Government has to get to the root of the problem to change this, rather than only tackling high- profile symptoms in a piecemeal way.”
A spokeswoman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “This Government is committed to being a global leader in both tackling plastic pollution and preventing waste, pushing up recycling rates and cutting landfill so we leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
“Bold work is already under way to move towards a circular economy through our ambitious resources and waste strategy and landmark Environment Bill.
“We’ve invested over £40 million to tackle plastics and boost recycling and are currently assessing responses to our call for evidence to better understand how innovative new packaging could help reduce the impacts of plastic.”