The Observer view on the government’s environment and obesity plans | Observer editorial | Opinion

Last week, Marks & Spencer withdrew the “cauliflower steak” from its shelves. Essentially a thick slice of cauliflower that came with a sachet of lemon and herb drizzle, the product was widely criticised for its excessive plastic packaging and sizable markup, retailing at a “special offer” price of £2.

That a retailer thought it saw an opportunity in marketing a slice of raw vegetable in this way reveals much, not just about our penchant for faddish food trends, but our attitudes towards waste. As a society, we produce far too much of the stuff: every year in the UK, 1bn plastic food trays are sent to landfill. We collectively throw away £13bn of food each year. Recycling rates in England lag far behind those of countries such as Germany.

The Observer is the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, founded in 1791. It is published by Guardian News & Media and is editorially independent.

The consequences for the planet – global warming, blighted landscapes, oceans choked with plastic – are devastating. On the latter, it is estimated that by 2050 the weight of plastic in the oceans will exceed the weight of fish. The BBC’s Blue Planet II, the most-watched British television programme of 2017, vividly highlighted the calamitous consequences for marine life.

Perhaps with the public concern provoked by Blue Planet II in mind – and no doubt keenly aware of recent polling highlighting the salience of green issues to younger voters – the prime minister made reducing waste the cornerstone of the government’s new 25-year environment plan, which she personally launched last week. It is framed by lofty ambition: it opens with the government’s aspiration to leave the planet in a better place than it found it and sets out an aim for the UK to produce zero avoidable waste by 2050.

These are worthy goals that few could take issue with. And, regardless of Theresa May’s motivations, the prime ministerial sponsorship of an issue that has long lacked government drive and energy should be welcomed.

But the plan’s lack of teeth means its stated ambitions will likely be blighted. Vague aspirations and good intentions are not what drive change. Indeed, the coalition agreement of 2010 contained a commitment to work towards a zero-waste economy. Not only did it fail to accelerate progress, but recycling rates in England stalled. Even as ministers were talking the talk on waste, the government dropped recycling targets for local authorities and stepped back from recycling quality standards. Instead, its 2011 waste review focused on voluntarism: encouraging retailers and producers to be more responsible on waste.

This is in stark contrast to what happened in Wales, where the Welsh assembly increased recycling targets to 70% of municipal waste by 2025 and introduced tougher quality standards. Wales now has the second-highest recycling rate in the world after Germany, a testament to what government can achieve with the right focus.

The government has learned none of these lessons; its plan contains no concrete measures to boost England’s laggard recycling rates, such as the bottle-deposit schemes that have proved so successful internationally.

While recycling is important, prevention is far better than cure. Here, by far the most successful initiative of recent years has been the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags. It resulted in the number of single-use plastic carrier bags in circulation plummeting by more than 85% in just six months.

This should have paved the way for the introduction of similar levies – or even bans – on non-recyclable plastic such as takeaway containers, plastic cutlery and drinks straws. But apart from extending the carrier bag charge to smaller retailers, a loophole that should have never existed, the plan is silent on this. Instead, the government has opted for more voluntarism: encouraging supermarkets to develop plastic-free aisles.

But retailers and producers have too little incentive to shift their approach and consumer preferences are shaped by what’s available. Plastic is ubiquitous and it remains difficult and expensive for consumers to choose a plastic-free or even plastic-light shopping basket.

There are echoes of the same toothless voluntarism the government has adopted in its obesity strategy. Consumer palates have been conditioned over time by food producers to want cheap – and addictive – fat, sugar and salt. This undermines the argument that healthy eating should be a matter of consumer choice. Because there is a strong first-mover taste disadvantage to reducing levels of fat, sugar and salt, the only answer lies in the compulsory product reformulation that has proved so effective in improving population nutrition around the world. Yet the government insists on leaving it up to food producers, a recipe for inaction.

Theresa May has tried to make taking on vested interests one of the defining themes of her premiership. But when it comes down to it – from obesity, to waste, to the internet – her government has balked at taking real action, thwarted by a misplaced ideological queasiness about regulation and a reluctance to ruffle feathers in the private sector. Unless she shifts track, her inevitable legacy will be a capitalism that becomes increasingly irresponsible and unsustainable.