Will imposing a tax on plastic help to reduce its consumption, and ultimately – hopefully – solve much of the world’s problem with plastics waste? That’s a possibility that the Finnish government wants to study in the country’s Reduce and Refuse, Recycle and Replace plastics roadmap.
Its Environment Ministry’s Moisture and Mould Programme director Merja Saarnilehto says Denmark (like Finland, a Nordic country) already has a tax on single-use plastics. People in Denmark – which reportedly is the first country to introduce a tax on plastic bags, in 1993 – use an average of just four single-use plastic bags in a year.
On the other hand, the average Malaysian uses 300 bags a year! And this despite being charged 20 sen for each bag used in many places, according to the Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association.
Any business will tell you that any kind of tax is a bad idea, as it most often gets passed down to the consumer as a part of operations cost. And in Malaysia, where the price of goods is always a sensitive matter, a tax like this is bound to get politicised.
“It’s quite a tricky issue to go into,” admits Saarnilehto during a briefing for foreign media in Helsinki in June. “In Finland, there was an awakening a year ago that recycling is not quite solving the plastic waste problem. It’s still a very linear chain when it comes to plastics,” she says.
Saarnilehto points to some of the ideas received during the drafting of Finland’s plastics roadmap, ranging from a “nuisance tax” on unrecyclable plastics to “tax benefits” for products made of recycled plastics.
In short, much like the soda tax, merely hoping for people to voluntarily change their behaviour and refuse, reuse or recycle plastics may no longer be enough, and it’s time to hit their pockets.
Under Malaysia’s Roadmap Towards Zero Single-use Plastics, there will be a “pollution charge” of a minimum of 20 sen for plastic bags in all states by the end of 2021, which isn’t any different from what Penang and Selangor has now. However, a “tax” entails altogether a different and more permanent and formal financing structure.
Citing the British government that is about to introduce such a tax, Finland’s roadmap says “financial instruments” could be wielded as a means to influence the use of plastics.
“A tax imposed on single-use plastic products could reduce the use of these items while at the same time increasing the demand for more sustainable solutions to replace these,” it states.
Such financial instruments might include a “producer responsibility” system or be worked into the pricing of products themselves using different kinds of deposits, fees or taxes.
Besides posing a waste problem, plastics also have an important impact on climate change because global warming fossil fuels are used to manufacture them – Saarnilehto says one-fifth of the world’s oil production goes into making plastics alone.
And with Finland having a front seat at the Arctic Circle, it ignores climate change – now called a climate crisis with forest fires reported in neighbouring Sweden – at its own peril. The country takes climate change so seriously that the topic merits a gallery of its own at the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki.
Saarnilehto says that, apart from studying the possibility of taxing plastics, Finland’s roadmap has identified several other measures by which it could cut down on plastics. “We want to raise the plastics issue in the international agenda,” she says, adding that “we want to go further on this.”
Finland, which ushered in a new government in June this year, assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July and has made it known that on its agenda will be the battle against climate change and the push for a circular economy.
But plastics, according to the country’s roadmap, doesn’t just have to be a “taxing” problem; it can be a business opportunity as well – hence, the circular economy. The roadmap also recognises the role that local businesses play in coming up with solutions.
Saarnilehto says the country’s Environment Ministry has concluded five or six “green deal agreements” with local businesses – including one on the use of plastic carrier bags.
Green Deal is a voluntary agreement between the state and the business sector to promote sustainable development goals without resorting to legislation. In force until the end of 2025, the agreement is to make sure that no more than 40 bags per person per year are used in Finland by then.
The Finnish Environment Institute’s director of the Programme for A Sustainable Circular Economy Dr Rina Antikainen says to create sustainable solutions to the plastics waste problem, there needs to a way to make a business out of it.
“It has to be profitable or else no business will be interested,” she says.