If the government truly wants to tackle plastic packaging reduction, it needs to avoid gesture politics and concentrate on effective initiatives, writes Neville Rhodes

When the 5p plastic bag charge for England was being considered by the government, I was opposed to small retailers being included, although similar legislation was already in force for all retailers, regardless of size, in Wales and Scotland.

I argued in RN that by restricting the compulsory minimum 5p charge to businesses in England employing 250 staff or more, small retailers would have a choice: those who wished to levy the charge would be free to do so, and those who preferred not to wouldn’t have to.

Now the government intends to extend the mandatory charge to all shops, I remain opposed to it, even though both the NFRN and the ACS apparently support the change.

Given that the public has already got the message that single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment – usage in supermarkets has declined by 80% since the levy was introduced – and that independent retailers account for less than 2% of the grocery market, extending compulsory charging to small businesses is unlikely to make any significant difference to total usage.

This just looks like gesture politics in the face of far bigger issues around plastic and other forms of packaging that urgently need to be tackled.

First and foremost, because they are a major contributor to litter and pollution, are plastic bottles and cans. It’s unrealistic to ban them, but a far greater effort is needed to ensure they are recycled. 

The Scottish government is leading the way on this with a commitment to introduce a retailer-led recycling scheme for all drinks containers – glass as well as plastic and cans – known as a deposit and return system (DRS). It works by including a refundable deposit in the price of the drink, which is paid back when the container is returned. 

There is considerable opposition to DRS, but its influential supporters include Tesco and Coca-Cola, and the NFRN has backed the Scottish government’s initiative.

It’s easier said than done, I know, but participation in DRS should not be too difficult for most small retailers – providing it comes with a collection service that is frequent, reliable and free. 

Retailers “doing their bit for the environment” shouldn’t have to face charges for a service they are providing for their communities.

Nor can I see how DRS would put them at a competitive disadvantage to the supermarkets, as some retailers fear. 

To work effectively, DRS would require standard deposits payable at all retailers and printed on the drinks’ containers, enabling customers to obtain their refund at any DRS outlet, regardless
of where the drink was pur-chased.

The footfall from people “taking the bottles (and cans) back” could bring extra sales to local shops – just as it did years ago when most CTNs and corner shops took back returnable glass bottles.

DRS is one solution to a serious problem and it deserves a proper trial. A 5p charge persuaded millions of consumers not to accept a plastic bag to carry home their supermarket shopping. Whether it will be as effective as an incentive to collect a refund on an empty drinks container is the big question. 

Neville Rhodes is a freelance journalist and former retailer