Single-use plastic has been an issue for years for anyone with an interest in environmental issues, but it really came to the fore in 2018.
That’s partly because of TV programmes such as the BBC’s Blue Planet and Sky’s Ocean Rescue, which have highlighted the ecological impacts associated with the use and incorrect disposal of single-use plastics (SUPs), and plastics in general.
Concern expressed by consumers about the use of plastics is growing, and demand for alternatives is increasing. At Somerset County Council, we take our social responsibilities very seriously. Even at a time when there’s so much on the local government plate, I believe it’s important for councils and other community leaders to show the way and take steps to address the issue.
So, last February, we passed a resolution to tackle the use of SUPs and develop a strategy and timetable for doing so; this was adopted by full council last November. There are actions and objectives that basically boil down to reducing our use of SUPs, promoting recycling and proper disposal, trying to control what is within our gift to control, and influencing others.
The latter includes reducing the use of plastics by council staff, on our estate and by our services; improving recycling routes to minimise residual waste disposal; and influencing partners, suppliers and providers to reduce their usage of plastics on the county estate and beyond.
However, there has to be a balance between ambition and reality. I believe in always aiming high, but this has to be a strategy that we can deliver on. That’s why we are not proposing to eliminate the use of all SUPs in all services – nor are we trying to tackle everything immediately, in one go.
We will do our best, we will push wherever we can, but are conscious that it may not be economical or practical to eradicate the use of SUPs across all services and the whole of the county council’s estate.
In some areas, such as construction and agriculture, alternatives may not be available or practical. In an ideal world, we would include clauses in all our contracts to ban the use of SUPs by contractors – but this may not be feasible or economically viable in all cases.
We have to take account of the challenging financial position of local government when letting contracts, and to continue to provide best value for money for our council tax payers.
This is about making a real commitment to make a real difference and we’re at the start of a process that will see us do that. We will be exploring the wider opportunities while focusing on using our influence and contractual leverage – with contractors, suppliers, staff and commissioned services – where there are viable alternatives to SUPs, such as plastic bottles, cutlery, food packaging, stationery and plastic straws.
We will work with partners within the Somerset Waste Partnership, trading standards and other umbrella organisations to inform and raise awareness of the issues around the use of plastics with communities, schools, businesses and other organisations.
With so much going on in local government, it might seem tempting to leave this subject in the long grass – it’s not like we haven’t got plenty of other things to think about. It will be challenging, but we have an obligation to show leadership on this, and I think the vast majority of our residents would agree.