Plastic is less than fantastic, Mr Hammond
It was a Budget for hard-working journalists. The chancellor’s late start and long-winded speech on Monday meant that by the time he finished, the FT had less than three hours to write, edit and produce a 20-page Budget special.
There were no scary financial shocks for the wealthy — although there was one for me. With less than an hour to deadline, one of my teeth fell out.
A troublesome crown came loose as I was chewing over the impact of income tax changes. “I can’t deal with this now,” I thought. So I just pretended it hadn’t happened. I popped the tooth on my keyboard and carried on typing.
I then emailed my dentist, and by 10.30am the next morning I had a gleaming temporary gnasher. It was as if it had never happened.
Looking back at the Budget, I get the same sense of disbelief. For the chancellor to spend money he may well not have on a feel-good income tax cut is a massive gamble — and shows how much the Conservatives fear a general election.
No Brexit deal has been done, the rosy forecasts could evaporate as quickly as they appeared and the promise to “end austerity” has a hollow ring when billions of pounds of welfare cuts are still working their way through the system.
Fighting the rising tide of plastic waste was another issue that came to the fore in the Budget. I know readers care deeply about the environment, both in your personal lives and investment choices. The rise of “ESG” investing — standing for environmental, social and governance — has been a huge story this year.
A consultation into a “plastic tax” has been launched, which would impose a levy on all packaging that does not include at least 30 per cent recycled material by 2022, but the chancellor stopped short of a “latte levy” on disposable takeaway cups.
One of my most-read columns this year calculated the return on investment on a reusable coffee cup. My drip-free reusable KeepCup has more than paid for itself since then. It cost nearly £13, but nets me a 50p discount in some coffee chains.
It has also solved another minor middle class annoyance. As a Waitrose & Partners loyalty card holder, I’m entitled to a daily free coffee. However, the queue in the branch near the FT office has often been enormous. Not any more! Now that the supermarket has decreed that customers have to bring their own reusable cup, it’s easy peasy.
This is part of a wider pledge to cut packaging waste and find alternatives to black plastic — commonly used for posh ready meals and premium fruit and veg — which is notoriously hard to recycle. That’s good. But even if you pride yourself on faithfully rinsing out cans, trays and yoghurt pots, I have some bad news — recycling is no longer the answer.
Once collected, our recycling is shipped around the world. China had been the centre of the global recycling trade, but a year ago, decided to stop taking most of it. Experts say this has created a “global crisis” in plastic waste. As the FT reported a few weeks ago, collection bags emblazoned with the names of London councils have been found dumped in Malaysia. We simply cannot carry on as we are.
“Zero waste” campaigners say rather than rely on recycling, we should look to the other Rs — refuse, reduce, reuse and rot.
Many environmentally sustainable ideas are also pleasingly thrifty and old fashioned. Buying loose fruit and veg in a paper bag; brewing loose leaf tea instead of using tea bags (which contain plastic); putting scraps on the compost heap and taking the bottles back to the shop to get the deposit.
“Make do and mend” was the money-saving mantra of my grandparents. I support the grassroots movement of consumers fighting for the “right to repair” items such as iPhones and washing machines rather than chuck them away and buy new ones.
Previous generations had no choice. Their thriftiness was driven by a lack of cash. I find that my worst excesses are driven by the need for convenience.
I am cash rich but time poor. I can order my shopping online and it will arrive the next day swaddled in packaging, having been driven to my door in a Diesel van. Even worse? Takeaway food, which is either covered in mounds of plastic, or greasy cardboard that cannot be recycled. I am trying to mend my ways.
Even if I haven’t got a lot of money, I could buy a £5 dress online — the subject of a furious debate in Parliament this week on the sustainability of fast fashion. Our disposable attitude towards cheap clothing means that 400,000 tons ends up in landfill every year, and washing all those man-made fibres means plastic is leaching into waste water.
Do sustainable choices have to be expensive? Natural fibres cost a lot more. But by buying fewer, more sustainable items and keeping them for longer (with the odd darn) we could be better off and so could the planet.
I am fascinated by the rise of zero-waste shops. One of London’s biggest — Bulk Market — is set to reopen in new premises in Hackney this month, after crowdfunding more than £20,000 from supporters. Shoppers bring their own jars and containers, then weigh and fill them with all kinds of items from dried goods to olive oil and even craft beer and gin. Back in the day, the Body Shop used to do this for dewberry bubble bath.
Slapping a tax on plastic is one way of addressing the problem. But if, in his next public outing, Mr Hammond can come up with a way of encouraging good behaviour as well as penalising bad, we could see such schemes proliferate — along with the investment opportunities that go with them.