The new tax, which would be introduced by April 2022, will "transform the economics of sustainable packaging", chancellor Philip Hammond said in his Budget speech.
The government intends to consult on the detailed design of and implementation plan for the tax, alongside already planned reforms to the Packaging Producer Responsibility scheme intended to increase producer responsibility for the costs of their packaging waste. In intends to reinvest some of the future revenue from both schemes into tackling single-use plastics, waste and litter.
In his Budget speech, Hammond said that the government had ruled out the introduction of a charge on single-use coffee cups and other drinks containers, citing action being taken by the takeaway drinks industry to reduce the use of single-use plastics in their products. However, he said that the government would return to the issue "if sufficient progress is not made".
"I have concluded that a tax in isolation would not, at this point, deliver a decisive shift from disposable to reusable cups across all beverage types," he said.
The 2018 Budget also includes £20 million worth of funding to tackle plastic waste and boost recycling. It has allocated an additional £10m for research and development that helps businesses transition away from polluting plastic packaging materials, and £10m to install 'smart bins' on streets and for other innovative approaches to boost recycling and minimise litter.
In a briefing note published alongside the Budget documents, the government said that 2.26m tonnes of plastic packaging are used in the UK each year. Of this, the "vast majority" is made from new plastic rather than recycled material, as recycled plastic is often more expensive.
The planned new tax would apply to businesses that produce or import plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled material, providing them with a "clear economic incentive" to use recycled material in the production of their packaging. Business will have until April 2022 to adjust their behaviour and adapt their processes to prepare for the introduction of the tax.
The government intends to consult on the tax in the coming months alongside its plans for reform of the Packaging Producer Responsibility scheme, "to ensure that they work together in a coherent way". Its revisions will be designed to make businesses take more responsibility for clean-up and recycling costs associated with their packaging, and to encourage them to design and use packaging that is easier to recycle, according to the briefing note.
The note also raises the possibility of a new tax on waste incineration in the longer term, "should wider policies not deliver the government's waste ambitions in the future".
The government has proposed banning the sale and distribution of single-use plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds in England, unless needed for medical or accessibility reasons. It is currently consulting on the plans, which it expects to come into force at some point between October 2019 and October 2020.
"While this is a good development, we are extremely disappointed to see the paucity of environmental information in the Budget. We look forward to further developments once the government has more certainty in relation to Brexit," said environmental law expert Georgie Messent of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.