The UK's Plastic Packaging tax

The UK's Plastic Packaging tax

Thursday 10th December 2020

A quick update on the UK's new plastic packaging tax, which can be viewed in detail here:

UK Plastic packaging tax

The proposal is to introduce a tax of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging, where less than 30% of the material is recycled. This is due to come into effect in 2022.

This is a start at least, but one with some serious flaws.

Firstly, the mass of a typical plastic tub for takeaway meals is about 20 grams, without the lid. That means 1 tonne of plastic packaging produces 50,000 tubs. The tax would therefore be around 0.4p per unit. Because these tubs are easily stacked and easy to produce they have low shipping and production costs. You can buy them on mass for 2p per unit. Adding 0.4p onto the cost of each unit is a lot, percentage wise, but not enough to discourage using them. Our hope must be that like other sin taxes, such as on tobacco, fuel and alcohol, that this is just a low starting point that will swiftly be ramped up to an amount that will have an effect.

Secondly, requiring only 30% recycled material to avoid the tax may be counter productive. Plastic can only be recycled a limited amount of times. Adding 30% recycled material into otherwise new products may actually reduce the quality of the plastic to an extent that the new products can't be recycled as effectively. Plastic that could have been recycled 5 or 6 times may end up going straight to refuse.

Thirdly, taxing by mass rather than per unit will encourage producing lighter packaging - risking products that can't be reused due to their flimsy nature. This could result in more single use plastic products being created, not less.

I suspect, looking at the Policy Paper, that this has been drawn up to minimize disruption to the packaging industry. In its current form this will have negligible effect on plastic packaging use. However, to end on a positive note, it provides a starting point. A few tweaks could make this tax a highly effective way of reducing plastic waste. So, fingers crossed.