Here’s a suggestion for Boris Johnson. He should be wary of talking rubbish. Or he may end up trashing his own policies and infuriating the British people.
That’s what happened this week, when the Prime Minister announced, during a discussion on plastic waste, that recycling ‘doesn’t work’.
His cavalier comments will have angered millions of Britons who dutifully sort and put out their garbage for reprocessing because his Government, and many before it, have told them that recycling benefits the planet.
It also undermined a series of policies that successive Conservative administrations have introduced to combat plastic waste following sustained campaigning by this newspaper.
Here’s a suggestion for Boris Johnson. He should be wary of talking rubbish. Or he may end up trashing his own policies and infuriating the British people. That’s what happened this week, when the Prime Minister announced, during a discussion on plastic waste, that recycling ‘doesn’t work’
And such words only add to previous mixed Government messaging that has confused and disillusioned the public.
Mr Johnson made his gaffe during a press conference for children at Downing Street on Monday. Olivia Devaney from Northern Ireland told him she took care to drink from a reusable bottle and that her family had plastic-free toothbrushes.
She asked: ‘What are we going to do to make sure that people and business use less plastic?’
‘Recycling isn’t the answer,’ he retorted, banging the table for emphasis. ‘I’ve got to be honest with you; you’re not going to like this. It does not begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times, really.
‘What you’ve got to do is to stop the production of plastic. Stop the first use of plastic. The recycling thing is a red herring . . . We’ve all got to cut down on our use of plastic.’
World Wide Fund For Nature UK chief executive Tanya Steele — who was fielding questions with Boris —responded: ‘I do think we need to do a little bit of recycling, PM,’ but he just doubled down.
‘It doesn’t work,’ he insisted. ‘I don’t want to be doctrinaire about this, but if people think we can just recycle our way out of the problem, we’ll be making a huge mistake.’
Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, later said that Mr Johnson had ‘completely lost the plastic plot’, while No 10 had to hastily insist that the PM continued to encourage people to recycle.
Mr Johnson’s cavalier comments will have angered millions of Britons who dutifully sort and put out their garbage for reprocessing because his Government, and many before it, have told them that recycling benefits the planet. Above: Boris Johnson alongside WWF UK’s Tanya Steele at Downing Street yesterday
To some extent, the former climate sceptic now bidding to be our greenest-ever premier, is right. It is much better not to produce plastic in the first place than to have to recycle it: we certainly desperately need, as the Mail has long pointed out, to cut down its use.
But Johnson’s absolutism is closer to activists like Insulate Britain than to most environmentalists. And it is bound to alienate the public.
A total of 87 per cent of British householders recycle regularly, and 91 per cent of adults say this should increase.
Not only that, they know that in parts of the country they can be fined up to £1,000 merely for putting their rubbish for recycling in the wrong bin.
Hearing the PM dismiss their efforts will remind many that not that long ago they were exhorted to buy diesel cars because they were more environmentally friendly, only to discover the opposite was true.
Mr Johnson’s reckless intervention will not help his Government’s credibility on such matters. What’s more he is wrong.
There is no way the world can suddenly stop using plastics altogether, at least not for a long time. They are just too ubiquitous, and too useful.
Their use has soared twenty-fold over the last 50 years and we now produce over 380 million tons — weighing more than the entire human population of the world — every year.
Much of the resulting waste litters the world’s towns, countryside and beaches.
And every minute of every day, the equivalent of a truckload reaches the oceans, where it kills at least 100,000 mammals and a million birds each year.
Less than a tenth of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled, less than a hundredth of it more than once.
Britain creates more than any country apart from the U.S., annually producing more than five million tonnes.
Enough to fill Wembley Stadium six times over. About 17 per cent of it is dumped in landfills and 46 per cent incinerated. The rest, ministers tell us, is recycled. But that is garbage.
In fact more than half of what remains, some 19 per cent, is exported overseas, ostensibly to be recycled, but — scandalously — often to be dumped, polluting land and waterways and endangering health.
So just 18 per cent is actually recycled in the UK.
Worse, the National Audit Office has reported the total amount of packaging recycled in Britain ‘remained steady’ for 16 years between 2002 and 2018 — while the amount exported soared sixfold.
And we are not even fully using our 16 plastic recycling facilities. They can handle 440,000 tonnes of waste but only treat 230,000 tonnes.
Yes, we need to wean ourselves off plastic, but the reality is that we desperately need to recycle more, not — as Mr Johnson suggests — less.
Where he is right, is that recycling is not the ultimate answer. Unlike other recyclables, plastic degrades in the process and there is not enough demand for the end product.
We must focus on cutting single-use plastic in half by 2025 — something supermarkets such as Aldi and Sainsbury’s have already undertaken.
There is certainly support for it, with no less than 85 per cent of Britons wanting retailers to reduce packaging.
The Mail has been pressing for such a sensible, balanced approach for many years.
It began by campaigning against plastic bags and, following the Government’s introduction six years ago of a 5p charge (since increased to 10p)on carriers in England, the number has dropped by billions a year.
As the Mail’s campaign continued, the Government banned plastic microbeads, straws, cotton buds and stirrers.
Ministers have also proposed a tax on plastic packaging and a scheme to put deposits on plastic bottles and other drinks containers (though this has been delayed until at least 2024).
Meanwhile, the amount of plastic waste going to landfill has halved, while the amount recycled has doubled.
As a baffled Mr Ellin of the Recycling Association also pointed out, Boris Johnson’s Government has produced ‘the most ground-breaking legislation and plan that we’ve ever seen, with recycling right at the front of it’.
That makes the Prime Minister’s outburst this week all the more inexplicable, if not entirely untypical.
He needs to guard his tongue. Never will that be more vital than at the COP26 climate summit that opens this weekend in Glasgow.
Reaching a complex agreement between almost 200 countries is a hugely difficult task at the best of times, requiring enormous tact and diplomacy. As he told the school children, such an agreement now looks ‘touch and go’.
The 2009 Copenhagen climate summit largely failed because it was run by a Danish prime minister who was poorly prepared, did not understand its arcane (and often sclerotic) procedures, and showed little diplomatic skill.
In the end he was humiliated by having to leave the chair before even an unsatisfactory, patched-up conclusion could be reached.
If Mr Johnson doesn’t want history to repeat itself he must learn some tact — and, above all — avoid launching into one of his dazzling, often counter-productive rhetorical turns.