Misguided regulation will do more environmental – and economical – damage than good
20 Feb 2023
As the world lurches from a global pandemic to a climate crisis, governments must focus on smart solutions to incredibly complex challenges.
However, while there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and improve sustainability, for example, there are worrying signs that the schemes implemented or being introduced by the UK government, in particular, are wrong-headed. Worse, they could prove counter-productive and will likely do more damage than good.
Politicians are trying to drag the nation down to net zero, but half-baked attempts to go greener are turning the heat up on businesses. Lots of clients have been complaining about the increasing levels of regulation that are impacting a lot of organisations.
Taken at face value, some of the new laws are well-meaning, and it’s easy to see the good intentions behind them. Dig a bit deeper, though, and cynics point to obvious consequences – whether they are intended or not is open to debate.
For example, in late January, the government announced updated plans for a Deposit Return Scheme for recycling plastic bottles and drink cartons that will be introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2025. The hope is that this will drastically reduce the level of single-use plastic.
By charging consumers a “small cash deposit”, within three years, there will be an 85% reduction in abandoned containers, according to Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.
“We want to support people who want to do the right thing to help stop damaging plastics polluting our green spaces or floating in our oceans and rivers,” she said. “This will provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily, even when on the move.”
Call me a cynic, but I would challenge the “simple and effective system” that will apparently solve the UK’s litter problems.
Yes, in theory, cans and plastic bottles will have a surcharge that can be refunded – this is likely to be 20p, as per plans in Scotland that come into force later this year. But, in practice, it will be hard to recover that extra money. The new proposals make clear that the surcharge will be the same for bottles, whatever the size. And consumers will only be able to collect the deposit money if they return the bottle or can to the retailer from which it was bought.
So if someone desperately wants that 20p back, they will have to travel to the shop – perhaps by car, therefore increasing pollution. Most will conclude: it’s inconvenient and not worth the time, money and effort.
The Deposit Return Scheme also goes against the current recycle-at-home policy, for which people get no credit. So if you chuck the plastic bottle bought from the shop in your green bin you are throwing away 20p. It might not seem a lot, but some quick mental arithmetic will tell you some pounds could be saved if you return to the shops with your empties. For me, it would be about £4 a week, which is over £200 a year. But are people really going to carry 20 bottles to the shop every week?
And what happens if, like me, you buy your weekly shop online? Additionally, in Scotland, where a similar scheme will be rolled out earlier than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there have been understandable complaints from the shops selling drinks that the recycling process is not in place. There is a feeling the government has left them to work it out. It’s chaotic. Essentially, then, it is a tax on the consumer. It also places more pressure on drinks producers in this instance.
There are other recent examples of these misguided schemes. Last April, regulations that provided restrictions on the promotions and placement in retail stores and their online equivalents of certain foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) or “less healthy” came into force. Suppliers and organisations had to label everything at no small cost.
Will it change behaviours? Consider the results of a University of Cambridge study that analysed the impact of the sugar tax, which came into force in 2018 in an attempt to tackle childhood obesity. The research, published at the end of January, found no measurable effect of the sugar tax on obesity levels among year six boys, while there has been an 8% drop in obesity for girls at the same age.
The tax has been used as a stick to force drinks and food companies to reformulate their products to contain less sugar. But at what cost? Ultimately, consumers will have to swallow the price increase because suppliers have to make a profit. During the cost-of-living crisis, though, shelling out more for food and drink hits those on lower incomes the most.
For suppliers, there is a considerable amount of planning, investment to change recipes, and changing of packaging required. There is a growing feeling that it’s an interference for the sake of it, and that we are creeping back to a nanny state.
The bottom line is these eco-friendly and health-promoting schemes are ill-thought-through and it’s causing a lot of disruption for organisations and consumers when they need better support.