Whose problem is plastic packaging?

The government seems keen to make producers shoulder more responsibility for recycling their packaging, writes David Burrows.

The Commons environmental audit committee (EAC) has called for a “long overdue” reform of the producer responsibility obligations. The MPs said designing for recyclability should be rewarded while fees for hard-to-recycle packaging should be increased.

By reforming producer responsibility charges, the government can ensure that producers and retailers will have financial incentives to design packaging that is easily recyclable, or face higher compliance costs,” said the EAC chair, Mary Creagh.

The current rules allow businesses to show they have recycled by purchasing a packaging recovery note (PRN). The price of the notes fluctuates according to the market, but the average is about €20 (£18) a tonne. In other EU countries it averages €150. This leaves a significant shortfall when it comes to collection, sorting and recycling of packaging materials.

In fact, packaging producers pay just 10% of disposal and recycling costs. Taxpayers (through local authorities) pick up the other 90%. There is also little transparency on how the PRN revenue is spent by reprocessors. The system doesn’t seem to offer adequate incentives to design for recyclability, either. The EAC picked up on the fact that the marketplace is littered with complex plastic and film wrappings that contaminate the recycling stream and reduce its resale value.

A good producer responsibility scheme encourages people to use eco-design, the head of sustainability for Coca-Cola European partners, Nick Brown, told the committee. It also offers “some kind of credit for people who are using easy to recycle packaging”. This is critical – and it’s on the government’s radar. The environment minister Thérèse Coffey has said the idea of a higher charge for manufacturers that use polymers that can’t be readily recycled is one of the options being considered.

Marks & Spencer is looking to get ahead of the game: it’s assessing whether it is possible to make all plastic packaging from one easily recyclable polymer group. “We’re not intending to have a miracle cure within five years,” the retailer’s senior packaging technologist and circular economy lead, Kevin Vyse, told Footprint in October, “but we want a policy in place [soon].”

So does the government. Just before Christmas, the BBC revealed that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, has a four-point plan to tackle plastic waste – and one of them is to reduce the number of plastics in use.

It seems that few disagree that it’s time for a change. But how radical is the government prepared to be? This is harder to say.

In December, Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser, and Professor Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, published their assessment of how the UK can make the most of its waste. This includes making the arrangements for sharing financial and behavioural responsibility for waste “fairer and more economically efficient”. They also noted that the “time is ripe for a comprehensive look at our waste policies as the UK exits the European Union”.

In December, the European Parliament and European Council of EU member states agreed the legislative core of the circular economy package. It took a long time and wasn’t as ambitious as some campaigners had hoped. Extended producer responsibility – the contributions paid by the private sector to finance the collection and recycling of waste – proved to be a sticking point, but any new schemes must cover the full cost of disposal (it can be lowered to 80% but taxes and charges on consumers should make up the shortfall).

It isn’t clear yet whether these laws will apply to the UK, but industry representatives aren’t keen for any new producer obligations to go that far. The likes of the British Retail Consortium, the British Soft Drinks Association, the Food and Drink Federation, INCPEN and the Packaging Foundation have said payments through EPR schemes would rocket from £50-£100 to as much as £1 billion.

There was no case “at this point in time to make radical change”, they said. They do want some changes, however. Just before the release of the EAC’s report, the Foodservice Packaging Association said reforming producer responsibility obligations, including the PRN system, would produce more funds devoted to recycling and collection. Taxation, on the other hand, would “most likely disappear into Treasury coffers”.

But the government is clearly keen to explore whether the time has come for a more heavy-handed approach. Buoyed by the success of the 5p plastic bag charge, DEFRA and the Treasury will soon launch a call for evidence to assess the merits of taxing a wider range of single-use products.

The fact remains that the UK is not recycling enough plastics. Of the 13 billion bottles used every year, only 7.5 billion are recycled – and that’s one of the easier packaging items to recycle. Start to consider coffee cups that have plastic-fused paper, disposable forks, wraps and sandwich boxes and the problems escalate.

Dominic Hogg, from the Eunomia consultancy, said convenience is at the heart of the issue. “In short, ‘it’s for convenience’ has become a justification for why things are as they are. What, though, is the price of convenience? What is the cost of meeting our expectation that anything we want should be available whenever we want it? And can we really justify trashing the land, beaches and oceans by appealing to the fact that ‘we’re busy’ or that ‘it was convenient’?”

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