Beware the new outrage over plastic - in politics, consensus leads to cock-up

Fraser Nelson
A loggerhead turtle trapped in plastic - APEX

A few weeks ago, groups of Conservative MPs were summoned into 10 Downing Street to be given a short seminar on how awful everything is. Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, presented research on which values are associated with which parties and the results were pretty disastrous.

The Tories were associated with the clichés – security, the economy – but not with jobs, their biggest single success. On inequality, education and health Labour was ahead; among the young, streets ahead. But the environment, as an agenda, was up for grabs. No party, yet, is associated with that.

Theresa May at the Wetland centre, where she annoucned the 25-year plan

The Prime Minister’s 25-year plan on the environment, revealed yesterday, is an attempt to plant a Tory flag on this territory. A noble aim: conservatism and environmentalism are inextricably linked.

But there wasn’t too much of substance, which isn’t so surprising given that the value of any government scheme tends to be inversely proportional to the time allocated to its completion. We do, however, have one solid policy. Soon, all shops are to be banned from giving away plastic carrier bags and afterwards, Philip Hammond might tax other “single-use” packaging. Plastic, it seems, is the new national enemy.

The war against plastic bags has been waged for some time now, here and overseas. They’re fairly easy to hate, especially when seen littering streets and beaches and neatly symbolise a throwaway culture. They’re also easy to stop: the 5p charge, when applied to supermarkets, saw a collapse in the number issued. Shoppers soon adjusted, and got into the habit of bringing their own bags.

Totes are now popular, especially among companies who put their name on them and turn people into walking adverts. Why, we ask, be seen carrying anything else?

Mrs May is now ready for the next stage. She is seeking to build a hierarchy of enemy plastics, with a view to taxing the worst. She would like to eliminate all “avoidable” plastic waste – albeit by 2042 – and has suggested that some supermarket aisles should be made plastic-free.

How much better are totes?

The stocking of shelves in Tesco is not, yet, a concern of government but the Prime Minister senses a new opportunity. Or, rather the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, does. He was behind David Cameron’s hug-a-husky phase 13 years ago and again sees a chance to align the Tories behind a popular cause. Then, it was global warming; now, it is a crusade against plastic.

Since Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also on the same side, we have agreement – and, ergo, danger. As Nigel Lawson once pointed out, large errors normally follow a cross-party consensus because no one questions or scrutinises the arguments.

In this case, no one is asking why plastic has gone from being a wonder material – a cheap and durable replacement for metal, leather, glass, ceramics and more – to being denounced as a modern-day menace, a threat to coastlines, sea life and the planet. Almost no one in parliament, it seems, has a word to say in defence of it.

Look more closely, and it’s hard to see how the country – let alone the planet – has been helped much by the plastic bag charge. Even before the 5p tariff, they barely made the top 10 litter offenders in the list drawn up by Keep Britain Tidy. Cigarette butts, sweet wrappings, fast-food containers, drinks bottles and car parts: they’re the real scourge.

Failure to think clearly can lead to embarrassing U-turns down the road

Plastic bags make up about 0.2 per cent of household waste; and bear in mind that almost half of the old plastic bags were themselves used as bin liners. If people are now buying more bespoke bin liners, instead of free plastic bags, is that such a win for the environment? My local supermarket now doesn’t even sell normal bags, charging 15p for thicker ones. This leaves me with higher-quality bin liners, but I’m not sure the planet is much better off.

And that lovely cotton Tote bag? The “bag for life”? You’d have to use it about 175 times to make it better for the planet than 175 throwaway plastic bags. It takes a lot of soil, water and pesticides to grow cotton.

The efficiencies of modern chemistry mean that almost nothing is wasted making a plastic. Philippe Starck, the French designer, once summed it up well. “The more you use plastic in an intelligent and ethical way,” he said, “the less often you kill animals to have the leather, the less often you kill trees to have wood.”

This is the point that politicians seldom examine: yes, plastic has its headaches. But if not plastic, then what? The glass Irn Bru bottles that Michael Gove and I grew up with in northeast Scotland, which schoolboys would liberate from bins to exchange for cash, have now been replaced by plastic ones.

Irn Bru - in plastic

But is this such a regressive step? Glass bottles are heavy, needing more energy to create and transport. They’re more liable to break and so waste. Household waste can be recycled, and we can do so more than we’re doing now. The plateauing of German recycling rates suggests there’s a limit to how much waste any society can realistically recycle. Britain, at 44 per cent, might not be far away from that limit.

When Mr Hammond collects evidence on whether to tax single-use plastic, he ought to bear M Starck’s point in mind. What are the alternatives to plastic, and what are their wider environmental implications? Failure to think clearly about all this can lead to embarrassing U-turns down the road.

Not so long ago the government was encouraging us to buy diesel cars, saying they had a smaller carbon footprint and used less fuel. Now, they’re being hit with special penalty taxes because of the nitrogen oxides they emit. This is the problem with having environmental policy decided by fashionable arguments: fashions change.

Mr Gove says he has been profoundly moved by watching the BBC’s Blue Planet and its evidence of plastic polluting the oceans. Perhaps so, but nothing that was announced yesterday will be of much help. It’s still clever politics, though: the party needs a new cause, other than Brexit – a means to show that they care.

What we heard yesterday was really a 25-year-plan to save the Tories. The planet, for now, can wait.