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The war on plastics and the evolving legal landscape

The war on plastics and the evolving legal landscape
  • United Kingdom
  • Industrials - Chemicals


There is increasing focus on plastic waste both at a national and international level with news articles published daily detailing the environmental issues surrounding the use of plastics and its contribution to marine and environmental pollution. Sir David Attenborough highlighted the impact of plastic waste on marine wildlife in the BBC documentary Blue Planet, and in the Autumn budget, Chancellor Phillip Hammond outlined his intention to explore new taxes on plastic waste. A raft of proposals has followed, building on wider issues of sustainability.  

There is no singular piece of legislation regulating plastics and their use in the UK. Legislation comes from a variety of sources at national, EU and international level and it continues to develop in a piecemeal fashion. Some key initiatives of recent months are summarised below. Here, we take a look at some of the key initiatives recently, and what they mean for businesses.


On January 11, 2018, the government published its 25 year Environment Plan. It includes the ambitious targets of achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 and reducing (and where possible, preventing) marine plastic pollution. The government intends to achieve this by taking action at each stage of the product lifecycle: production, consumption and end of life. Further detail on how this will be achieved has not yet been provided.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), a select committee of the House of Commons, has also called on the government to introduce measures including a UK-wide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, a requirement to provide free drinking water in public premises and a 25p “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups. Additionally, the EAC has recommended that producers be made financially responsible for plastic packaging they produce. Should these proposals be implemented, they will impact a range of businesses across a variety of sectors, both financially and operationally.

A number of companies across the UK have begun proactively to implement measures to reduce plastic waste. For example, Pret A Manger has announced it will double the discount available to customers who use their own cup instead of a disposable one and Lucozade Ribena Suntory have committed to removing plastic films and sleeves from their packaging that complicate recycling.

It is clear this is a rapidly evolving area, with the government keen to take a tougher line on plastic waste. Recent proposals add to existing legislation derived from the EU which imposes waste management and recycling obligations aimed at reducing the end of life environmental impact of waste (including the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, the Waste Framework Directive and the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007).


On January 16, 2018, the European Commission (EC) published its Plastic Strategy (the “Strategy”). This is the first EU strategy on plastics and forms part of the transition towards a circular economy. The Strategy is intended to lay the foundation for a new plastics economy.

Under the Strategy, all plastic packaging on the EU market should be recyclable by 2030; the consumption of single-use plastics should be reduced and the intentional use of micro plastics should be restricted. This will be achieved through a wave of measures including new rules on packaging and waste management and revised recycling targets. For example, the EC has set a new target requiring 55% of plastic packaging waste to be recycled by 2030. The European Commission has provided a timeline summary of future measures to implement the Strategy - you can read or download further information here.

Whilst the circular economy package more generally is not expected to be introduced into the domestic law of EU Member States before 2019, it nevertheless illustrates international trends towards resource sustainability.


In December 2017, the UN Environment Assembly passed a resolution in Nairobi to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea. Whilst the resolution is non-binding, it could pave the way for a legally binding treaty in the future. This followed the New York Ocean Conference in June 2017 which was based on the Sustainable Development Goal 14: to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development which includes issues such as marine pollution and acidification. The UK and other nations committed to sign up to clean sea initiatives, demonstrating a clear global consensus on the need to better regulate plastics to reduce plastic pollution.


There is considerable momentum globally towards the increased regulation of plastics and specifically regulation as to its use, re-use and disposal. Given the UK government’s targets as set out in its 25 year Environment Plan as well as its international commitments, this is unlikely to change in the UK post-Brexit. As developments and proposals on this issue emerge almost daily, it is essential that companies are aware of their increasing and evolving obligations under such legislation and consider how they and their industry will be impacted by future developments.