Long-awaited 25-year environment plan aims to “restore” nature and eliminate plastic waste.

By Paul Davies and Michael Green

The UK government has announced its long-awaited 25-year environment plan (the ‘Plan’).

Having originally said it would publish the Plan by the end of 2016, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) subsequently delayed the release, raising concerns that the Plan might not come to fruition until after Brexit. In 2017, Defra requested input from the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), which was duly published in September of last year. The NCC suggested a number of ambitious goals that should be included in the Plan, such as the remediation of all historical land contamination and that air quality throughout the UK should meet international health-based standards.

The government has now published the Plan, which notwithstanding the NCC’s sugggestions, was heavily focused on plastics and sets the ultimate goal of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.

In addition, the Plan does address other potentially major issues (albeit these have received less attention), such as encouraging industry to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products, and making products easier to recycle. In addition, the government will consider how the tax system or charges could be a tool to further reduce the amount of waste created.

While the Plan does not include many specific policies, the plastics section is an exception; specific policy initiatives include:

  • Extending the 5p carrier bag charge to all retailers in England
  • Encouraging supermarkets to introduce “plastic-free aisles” in which all the food is loose and customers bring their own containers
  • Designating a £7 billion research and development fund in order to fund “plastics innovation”
  • Re-directing aid to help developing nations reduce plastic use (and tackle pollution more generally)

“Taking action at every stage of the production and consumption of plastic” could lead to additional compliance considerations and costs for companies producing waste within the UK. In addition, the end-consumer could experience increased day-to-day costs, particularly for disposable/single-use packaging; for example, there has been speculation that the government may consider a so-called “latte levy” of 25p on disposable coffee cups.

Beginning in February, the government will call for evidence on how to reduce the use of single-use plastics. Given that the government considers the absence of “deposit return schemes” for plastic items as a glaring omission, the government may look for evidence to confirm that these deposit schemes will incentivise companies and individuals to reduce the number of plastics in circulation and improve recycling rates.

Initial reactions to the Plan have been mixed, with some environmental groups suggesting the Plan lacks both detail and urgency. However, as highlighted above, in addition to the government’s ambitious plastics proposals, the Plan does address other potentially major policy issues that were incorporated into the detail of the Plan rather than as part of the announcements. For example, the Plan sets out the government’s intention to not only safeguard, but also the more far-reaching goal, of “restoring” nature, with a view to leaving “the environment in a better condition for the next generation”. The government has also said it wants to embed an “environmental net gain” principle for development, including in relation to housing and infrastructure developments. Given the government’s sizeable house building targets, the introduction of this principle could be significant. In addition, in order to assess progress towards the Plan’s goals, the government will develop a “set of metrics”, consult on establishing an independent environmental body to hold the government to account and proposes to report annually.

Latham will continue to track the implementation of the Plan, in particular, whether the Plan is integrated more formally into environmental regulation across the UK.

This post was prepared with the assistance of Tegan Creedy in the London office of Latham and Watkins.