In his recent budget speech, Chancellor Hammond announced a new and rather weak plastic tax, and explained why he wouldn’t tax disposable cups. Before moving on, he summed up his announcements thus: “This ambitious package reflects our determination to lead the world in the crusade to rid the oceans and the environment of plastic waste.”
This is a typical British attitude in my opinion. Because we’ve been an important nation for so long, we often assume that we’re leading the way on things without bothering to check. If we did, we’d know that a) this is not an ambitious package, and b) Africa is leading the way on plastics and we are following.
Take plastic bags. Britain introduced a mandatory 5p charge to some plastic bags in 2015. That’s ten years after Eritrea brought in a much more substantial ban on plastic bags. Tanzania banned them in 2006, Rwanda in 2008. Around 15 African countries took action on plastic bags before Britain did, and most of them are much more robust bans. The UN recognises that “Africa stands out as the continent where the largest number of countries instituted a total ban on the production and use of plastic bags.”
What about other plastics? Here are some places we can learn from:
- Zimbabwe has banned polystyrene packaging.
- The island nation of the Seychelles has banned the importation of plastic bags, styrofoam takeaway boxes, plastic plates, cups and cutlery. It just added straws to that list too.
- Taiwan has banned straws, bags, and plastic cutlery.
- France has a similar ban that will come into force from 2020.
- The Indian state of Karnataka has banned single-use plastics already, and so has the city of New Delhi.
- Vanuatu has banned plastic bottles.
- After successfully acting on plastic bags ten years ago, Rwanda is discussing bans on all single-use plastic, including bottles, and wants to be the first plastic-free country.
- They’ll have to hurry – Costa Rica has already banned all single-use plastics, and made more progress than anyone else so far.
There are actually good reasons why developing countries would find themselves leading the way on plastics. Many low and middle-income countries have access to consumer goods, but don’t have sufficient waste management systems to process the packaging and waste. That means a lot more plastic ends up in the natural environment. Plastic pollution is a much more visible problem, and it’s therefore easier to summon the political will to ban it.
Another reason to celebrate African leadership on plastics is that in countries where many people don’t yet have access to consumer goods, bringing in alternatives now avoids a huge waste problem later. The amount of household waste created in Africa is expected to double by 2025, according to UN Environment. As the graph below shows, that will be an explosion in the amount of mismanaged plastic waste at risk of ending up in the oceans. The best solution is to prevent plastic imports and production now, and millions of people will leapfrog throwaway culture.