Opinion Articles


Wars on waste, then and now


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Theresa May is hoping to use green issues to underpin a revival in her fortunes. In a wide-ranging speech earlier this month, she pledged a twenty-five year plan to improve the natural environment. The main suggestion is a ban on all avoidable plastic packaging by 2042. Only by re-thinking our ‘throwaway society’, May argues, can we tackle the ‘scourge of plastic waste’.

The timing of this announcement is significant. Environmental issues have been overlooked in recent years, with May’s predecessor famously advised to ‘ditch the green crap’ in 2015. But the problems facing the environment have not gone away.

Figures released by the Department for Department for Food and Rural Affairs in December 2017 show that recycling rates in England are effectively unchanged since 2012. The dangers posed by plastic packaging have gained prominence as a result of the BBC series Blue Planet II, while a recent Chinese ban on the import of plastic waste has led to warnings that thousands of tons of may have to be burned. This situation has brought together an unlikely alliance of environmental activists and media commentators, with the Daily Mail launching a vigorous campaign to cut down on plastic waste.

Theresa May’s speech included a series of ideas designed to tackle these challenges. She promised new discussions with supermarkets, a ‘call for evidence’ on a possible plastic tax, and new research funding for innovative materials. This follows a series of more specific announcements from Michael Gove. He has already promised to ban microbeads, establish a government watchdog to look after environmental issues, and extend the 5p plastic bag charge in England.

Although the ambition of these proposals has broadly been welcomed, they have failed to convince environmental campaigners. Green groups have been especially critical of the lengthy timescale and lack of legislation, arguing that promises are not enough. Similar criticisms have been made by Mary Creagh, the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has recently published reports calling for a deposit scheme for disposable plastic bottles and a 25p levy on takeaway coffee cups.

This is not the first time bans on unnecessary packaging have been proposed, albeit for very different reasons. It is fitting that the Prime Minister’s words have been described as a war on waste, because there is a wartime precedent that she can draw on. In the Second World War, Britain faced severe shortages of many raw materials as the result of submarine attacks on supply ships. One of the worst hit materials was paper. It was used to make everything from civilian food packaging to military shell casings, but Britain’s paper mills depended almost entirely on wood pulp imported from overseas. The prospect of shortages forced the wartime government to take a range of actions.

Unlike Theresa May, the wartime government passed a series of legal measures using emergency legislation. It first introduced controls over production, forcing manufacturers to cut the amount of paper that they used. It then introduced a form of industrial rationing that limited firms to using a only a given percentage of the paper they had used in the year before the war. This was gradually tightened from 60 per cent in March 1940 to 37.5 per cent at the end of 1941. These measures contributed to a sharp decline in paper consumption: which fell from 3.9 million tons in 1939 to 1.75 million tons in 1941.

I Need Your Waste Paper I Need Your Waste Paper © IWM (Art.IWM PST 14737)
Ministry of Supply poster No. 121, from the Imperial War Museums collection

The government also required local councils to improve recycling facilities, before launching a series colourful appeals for public participation. British civilians were encouraged to save waste paper, rags, tins, bones, and food waste to save shipping and feed the production of armaments. There had been very few recycling schemes in operation before the war, but an estimated 79 per cent of the public recycled regularly by 1942. Wartime recycling – or ‘salvage’ – was an important part of life on the Home Front.

These actions were not universally successful. Despite the high levels of participation, wartime recycling was always a cause of complaint because Britain’s patchwork of local authorities were unable – or unwilling – adopt a standard procedure. But the government’s actions did contribute to a sharp decline in paper usage and a concurrent rise in recycling. The changes were also welcomed by the public. In 1942, for example, the tightening of controls over paper waste was welcomed by 73 per cent of respondents to one poll (even though many would be inconvenienced by a ban on using paper to light fires).

The situation today is very different from the Second World War. We no longer face material shortages and it will be difficult to shift attitudes without the extraordinary circumstances of war. We also produce far more waste than previous generations. Despite this, I think the actions that were taken during the Second World War hold valuable lessons for the current debate around plastic.

Theresa May’s intervention should be welcomed, but history suggests that her plan will need to be supported at every stage in the supply chain. Britain’s wartime government realised that different strategies had to be used in combination. This means that a consultation with retailers should be combined with bold actions to cut production and re-invigorate household recycling. It is difficult to see how these objective will be reached without a legal framework to force some of these changes.

The wartime control measures for paper worked because the public quickly accepted that they were necessary. The recent focus on plastic waste may provide an incentive for some to change their behaviour, but it will need to be sustained in the long term if government’s twenty-five year ambition is to be met. It remains to be seen whether the government is prepared for a long war.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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