To really make a difference, the government must lead the way.

04 Dec 2019

The need for government action

Taking action in our communities and making changes to our own lifestyles is essential to reducing the amount of plastic we use. But to really make a difference, the government must lead the way. It must create laws to phase out plastic pollution and push companies to design safer and more environmentally friendly products.

We need legislation because we need action from this and future governments across the huge range of polluting uses of plastic. There are some welcome initiatives such as plans to ban plastic straws and cotton buds and tax other single-use plastics. These aren't joined up, and they ignore the huge range of other plastic polluters that come from products like clothes, fishing nets, car tyres and paints.

Ultimately most uses of plastic should be phased out if we are to end the plastic pollution crisis. Exceptions must be made for hard-to-replace and essential uses, such as plastic straws for people with disabilities.

Some uses of plastic (e.g. plastic coffee stirrers) can be dealt with now but others are much more difficult to tackle, such as the tiny bits of plastic that are released when we wash our clothes, or from car tyres.

Just as we did with the Climate Change Act, we need to lock this and future governments into taking action to stop all these uses of plastic from harming wildlife and risking human health.

New legislation

The nearest opportunities to win this legislation lie in the forthcoming Environment Bill. We want to work with MPs to take commitments from the plastic pollution bill and work them into the Environment Bill.

This has advantages in that the Environment Bill will be a government bill. This means it will be given a much higher profile and parliamentary time and many MPs will want to naturally engage with it.

If the Environment Bill doesn’t do what's needed on plastics, we will still have a chance to win strong legislation through the Plastic Pollution Bill. Either way, we want MPs to publicly state that they are prepared to work to get strong legislation in place to tackle plastic pollution. 

But to make real action and change they need to commit to engage in parliamentary bills and fight for specific parts of legislation when the opportunity is there.  

How we could win

We’re looking to build a group of at least 200 MPs to support the need for strong legislation now and November 2019. Ideally we want them to commit to lobbying for the things we want from the Environment Bill during this time.

Note: we expect to recruit many of these from within the campaign team at Friends of the Earth, but support from local groups in getting commitments from their MPs will be a huge help. 

How getting your MP on board could help bring about a change  

Local groups and activists are really well placed people to get their MPs on board. Getting a meeting with an MP face to face is by far the most effective way to persuade them, followed by letters, emails and social media. 

This is a special opportunity to work together to contribute to some real change to halt plastic pollution. 

Write to plastics@foe.co.uk if you’d like to visit your MP.  

Get your MP to support strong legislation

The important thing to remember is that your MP needs to publicly support strong legislation in order for their support to be meaningful and effective. Here are 2 simple ways you can get them to show their backing in public.

Thangam Debonnaire, MP for Bristol West, showing her support for plastics legislation
  1. Post a picture of them holding a placard on social media. The picture above shows Thangam Debonnaire, MP for Bristol West, showing her support for plastics legislation. The placard captures the generic message that the MP calls for strong legislation however we can secure it. So a simple post of a picture of them holding it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram will be enough. Encouraging people to share it will be helpful, as it starts to generate a buzz and encourages other MPs to follow suit. Remember to use #PlasticPollution as well so more people can find your post. You can order an A2 poster version of the placard on our website.

  2. Feature them in the local paper. Send a press release to your local news outlets. Include a photo of the MP with the placard if possible, and get them to sign off a quote which spells out their support for strong legislation. If you need support writing a press release please let us know.

How to meet your MP about strong legislation

So you’re planning to meet your MP to ask them to support action from the government to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. Great, and thank you! MP support will be crucial to winning the legislation we need to clean up our oceans.

Here’s all the info and tips you’ll need to visit your MP with confidence.

Note: There’s more general guidance on how to lobby decision makers here which will help you prepare for your meeting.

5 top tips for a successful meeting with your MP:

  1. Bring it back to the local – have you been doing local actions to tackle plastic pollution? Tell your MP what you’ve done. If you’ve discovered a particular local issue with plastic, e.g. you’ve done litter picking and have found a local river which is full of plastic pollution, this is really useful to bring up.

  2. Tell your MP why you personally care about the issue – this will make you seem more human and like someone who is passionate about it

  3. Tell your MP why they should care – what is it about plastic pollution that your MP should care about, and why is their getting involved important?

  4. Tell your MP what he/ she can do to help fix the problem - you’ll be doing this anyway as it’s the point of the meeting, but emphasise why them taking action could make a real difference

  5. Smile, and go for it! Your MP is only human, and MPs do genuinely want to help their constituents, so as long as you’re well prepared there’s no need to be nervous.

What are you asking your MP to do?

You’re asking them to publically support strong legislation to tackle plastic pollution.

Why are you asking them for this?

We need the government to take action to phase out all unnecessary and unsafe plastics. Some of these are simpler than others, such as plastic straws or coffee cups. Others are more complicated, like plastic in paint and clothing. So legislation will be really important to committing the government to tackle all these sources of plastic pollution.

We want MPs to get engaged at this stage because we have a very big opportunity to influence a piece of legislation  called the Environment Bill. The Environment Bill is the legislation that the government must produce for when the UK leaves the European Union, which says which laws we will keep or adopt to protect our environment. We know the Environment Bill will feature plastic pollution but very likely won’t do so strongly enough. The government could secure all the outcomes we are seeking in the Environment bill so you could ask your MP if he or she would lobby the government to secure this, and failing that help to establish the Plastic Pollution Bill.

Why do we need action to tackle all these sources of plastic?

Twelve million tonnes of plastic pollution pour into the oceans every year, with still more spread over land, buried in soil or lying in lakes and rivers. It has been found at the highest mountains and in the deepest ocean trenches, in fields and parks, tap water, everyday food and the very air we breathe.

There is a growing understanding that plastic pollution isn’t just familiar nuisances like excessive packaging and disposable coffee cups. Vast amounts of ‘microplastics’ also come from the wear and tear of vehicle tyres, synthetic clothes and paints.

This affects wildlife in many harmful and damaging ways including when animals ingest it mistaking it for food, when they become entangled in it and when they’re food and water is polluted by toxic chemicals from plastic. See our briefing Ending plastic pollution for more detail.

What are we looking for in the Environment Bill?

Once MPs have committed to work together with us on this, we will ask them to support specific amendments to the Bill that deal with plastic pollution. Broadly speaking, these amendments will focus in on setting up scientific committees, place duties on the government to act and set high level targets to meet on plastic pollution. 

What if they don’t support it straight away?

You can give them a copy of this briefing and this summary and ask them to read it over and get back to you. Don’t forget to follow up with an email or phone call to make sure you get a response.

What if they still don’t support it?

If they still won’t show support for strong legislation, it’s time to get more people from the local community calling for it, including local businesses. Start talking to businesses and shops to get them on board, then you can demonstrate that there is wide support from local business leaders for action.

Sticky questions your MP could ask you

Note – remember, you do not need to be an expert on the issue – you only need to be passionate about it. You are a local constituent, so you are not expected to know everything you need to know. if you’re asked a question you can’t answer, don’t try and bluff it as your MP will see through you. Thank them for the question and then tell them that you’ll find out some more information on it and get back to them.

1. The government is already taking action – earlier in the year ministers announced that plastic straws and cotton buds could be banned in as little as a year’s time. So the problem is already being dealt with.

We welcome the action that the government is taking to phase out and ban some of these single-use plastic items. But there are many uses of plastic which are not being tackled, especially those hard-to-replace plastics in things like paint, clothing and car tyres. We need strong legislation that commits the government to tackling all sources of plastic pollution and phasing them out over time.

2. It’s businesses and corporations which need to change the materials they use, but it’s not the role of government to impose that change.

Corporations do need to change, and many of them are taking steps in the right direction. But currently there is no obligation for them to do so. Legislation that commits government to a phase out of all unnecessary plastics means that all these sources of plastic will need to be tackled, so none of them slip through the net.

3. Shouldn’t we be focusing our efforts on recycling more plastic?

We do need to recycle more plastic – only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled.

But recycling will not solve the problem. We need to be producing less plastic in the first place and ultimately a phase out of polluting plastics is needed. This is because:

  • Most plastic recycling today is actually downcycling, into another lower quality material. Examples include plastic from bottles and other uses being made into fleece jackets, plastic ‘gravel’ and road surfaces, all of which then release micro-plastics – tiny plastic particles - through wear and tear.

  • Much plastic waste, such as film and crisp packets, is of such low value that companies have to pay to have it removed. This is because manufacturers use lightweight plastics or combine different types of plastic and other materials into ‘composites’. These and other chemicals which are added to make them much harder to recycle.

  • The chemicals found in many plastics makes them much harder to be recycled for different uses. For example, chemicals in plastics used in industrial settings cannot be used in plastics meant for food and drink.

  • Because the trade of recycling around the world is not transparent, it means that we can’t know for sure if all the materials we send overseas actually get recycled. We need better funding of the bodies that regulate this (such as the Environment Agency). We also need councils and businesses to check and report whether the waste they send abroad is recycled before counting it towards their targets.

  • Many countries being sent increasing waste from abroad are struggling to process it safely. Because the waste industries in many countries are not well equipped to deal with so much rubbish, people can become exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals. There is also a risk that these countries simply send the ‘recycling’ to incinerators and landfills that release more pollution

Briefing to support visiting your MP

Here's a briefing which you can take with you and present to your MP (it also has lots more information to support your efforts).

Get your council to go plastic free

There are lots of ways your local council can help reduce plastic in your community, from banning plastic cups and bottles in their own buildings and offices to supporting schools and residents to reduce their plastic use. 

Share this local authority Plastic Pledge with your council and ask them to take action to help beat plastic pollution.

If you do contact your council, please let us know how you get on by emailing plastics@foe.co.uk.

Plastics