Should we tax plastic?

Governments across the globe have started to consider the introduction of plastic taxes, with a largely negative reception.  In Italy, plans to introduce a plastic tax of €1 per kilo of plastic produced, have faced such intense backlash from plastic manufacturers that the government brushed them under the table. Is the introduction of a plastic tax really the answer?

Photo Credit: Magda Ehlers via Pexels

In Europe, we produce 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, but only 30% of this waste is recycled. The demand for recycled plastic remains very low, therefore the potential for recycling plastic waste is largely unexploited. For years countries have relied on trusting consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle. However, this approach is clearly not working and now governments are considering hitting people’s pockets to incentivise changes in plastic consumption. 

When starting to consider the introduction of a plastic tax, it is important that the tax is fair. In this case, the tax should affect the polluter. To consider this, we first need to look at the plastic supply chain. 

Plastic manufacturing starts with monomers, which can be extracted from crude oil or bio-based feedstock. The processing of monomers into polymers, such as polyethylene, produces resins which are the first material in the chain called a plastic. At this stage recycled plastics can re-enter the supply chain. Resins are then converted into finished plastic from which the single-use plastic products we are familiar with are made. The question for governments considering introducing plastic taxes, is where do you implement the tax to create the biggest changes in behaviour of consumers and plastic manufacturers?

Implementing the tax at early stages of the chain poses the risk that manufacturers will pass the cost of the tax onto the consumer, not affecting their profits or changing consumer behaviour. If this happened in Italy under the government’s proposed plastic tax, the cost to the consumer could be €180 for each citizen per year. While this may make consumers think twice about the packaging the products they purchase comes in, alternative packaging to single use plastics may not be available. Further, taxing the consumer alone does nothing to increase the demand for recycled plastic. 

Overall it is unlikely that a single tax will be enough to both change consumer behaviour and incentivise manufacturers to use more recycled plastic. The UK government has announced a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. While this is a good start, it is also important to tax the consumer, stimulating discussion and shaping decisions about the need for single-use plastics. Ultimately, we all need to take responsibility for our part in the usage of single-use plastics. Consumers need to reduce overall demand for single-use plastics by refusing to purchase them. Manufacturers must then respond to the consumer by providing more sustainable alternatives by using more recycled plastic in their products. 

This post was written by Portia Mcghan and edited by Miles Martin

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