Can a new industry agreement to tackle plastic prevent another five years of poor performance? By David Burrows.
Wrap’s future plastic pact plans. The environmental charity is consulting on a ‘successor agreement’ to its 2018 UK plastics pact. The original agreement involves leading food manufacturers and retailers committing to four targets that run to 2025. Foodservice companies haven’t been so keen to join in, mind.
So what? The current UK government is very keen on industry taking the lead in reducing plastic packaging, integrating more recycled plastic into containers and generally filling gaps where there should by now be rules and regulations (according to the government’s own resources and waste strategy of 2018). So Wrap is getting its ducks in a row for a new plastics pact to run from 2026-2030.
Out with the old. The current pact – the first of more than a dozen that are now run globally – has been successful to a point. There are 200 members now covering 75% of consumer plastic packaging. The hard-to-recycle plastics (the focus of target 1) initially identified have been pretty much “designed out”, according to Wrap CEO Harriet Lamb, but the other targets may well not be met. A progress report published in November blamed delayed regulations. Had streamlined household collections been rolled out by now as planned, 87% of all plastic packaging placed on the UK market by pact members would be classified as recyclable under target 2, rather than the 71% currently (a rise of just 5% since 2018). The policy dithering (which also includes deposit return schemes, mandatory cup takebacks and extended producer responsibility) has also left investors scared to build new recycling plants: 55% of plastic packaging is recycled, 54% of it in the UK; target 3 is for this to hit 70%. This has also left brands struggling to find recycled content and meet target 4 (average recycled content is 24%, up from 8.5% in 2018, and against a target of 30%).
In with the new. Wrap says there needs to be another post-2025 agreement because planned regulations won’t deliver “plastics circularity” or whatever targets may come once the global plastics treaty is finalised. Perhaps more significantly, the charity has recognised three of the major flaws in the original pact. (1) The absence of a target to reduce plastic packaging. (2) The fact that target 2 is for packaging to be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable, giving equal prominence to reuse and single-use (which companies have used as a get-out-of-reuse-free card, sticking instead to single-use). And (3), to focus only on single-use plastic: the wider packaging footprint of the UK has been “largely invisible”, notes Wrap’s explainer that accompanies the consultation.
Answers on paper, please. Questions in a survey for pact members (and other stakeholders) on the new agreement include whether all packaging materials should be in-scope. The role of single-use paper or card, often lined with plastic, as the go-to replacement for single-use plastic is going to be in the spotlight this year, and there is increasing recognition of the unintended consequences of both the pact and government regulations (like plastic item bans).
Eye on the targets. Respondents are also asked if there should be a reuse target (worth noting is that mandatory targets for reuse are currently being debated – hotly – in Brussels). Wrap makes note of the need to standardise reuse models and how to drive up recycled content in other materials. Wrap has proposed that the targets are structured around reduction, recyclability, higher recycled content (potentially a 40% target) and, also, limiting the amount of plastic ending up in incinerators (44% of plastic, 21% of paper and card and 21% of glass currently ends up at energy-from-waste plants, according to IGD). It talks about capturing data on recycling rates, domestic recycling capacity, reprocessing efficiencies, carbon emission reductions and landfilling.
Somewhere to hide. Wrap has stated that results will be pooled from across signatories rather than broken down at a company level – a nod to the protectionist nature of such agreements that mightn’t wash for much longer. Transparency will be key to the trust in any future pact. Some companies have begun sharing their plastic packaging footprints, either through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global commitment or WWF’s Resource programme. Wrap should perhaps take note.
Recycled? Definitely maybe. Understanding the difference between collected for recycling and recycled is another murky area. The “unbearable complexities” of defining recycling, as one expert recently put it, are likely to be one of the pact’s pressure points. It’s going to be high profile stuff in an election year when the incumbents promised to ban plastic exports to non-OECD countries. Research published yesterday by Recoup, a charity, via a freedom of information request to the Environment Agency, showed 26% of 600,000 tonnes of UK plastic exports went to non-OECD countries in 2023, up from 16% in 2022 and 6% in 2021.
Foodservice committed? While food manufacturers and supermarkets have, by and large, embraced the plastics pact, caterers, restaurant chains and the foodservice sector have shunned it. Apetito, Compass, C&C Group and McDonald’s are the only public signatories from the sector. There have been criticisms of the pact. Some companies believe they can go further and faster than the agreement allows. Which begs a question that isn’t on the questionnaire: is Wrap the right organisation to lead the UK’s new packaging pact?