Packaging firms push for policy pause

Footprint reports from the FPA environment seminar and the Packaging Innovations show this week as the supply chain storm and a whirlpool of policies has the sector in a spin. By David Burrows.

Sustainability or survival? Rising costs. Extended producer responsibility. The plastic packaging tax. Diverging policies on disposables between the devolved nations. This year’s Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) environment seminar held on Tuesday (May 24th) was a “greatest hits” of members’ concerns, according to executive director Martin Kersh. There was little to cheer however as the early air of celebration (at meeting in person) gradually gave way to frustration at what many in the sector see as suffocating and ill-timed new regulations. “I know it’s a world we have to look after but it’s […] poor timing,” said one member of extended producer responsibility for packaging (pEPR) to a loud round of applause. “The timelines are not in line with the real world and what’s happening.”

Regulatory roll back. Prices for recycled plastic have rocketed in recent months and “keep breaking records”, noted Egor Dementev, senior analyst on plastics recycling at ICIS. Shipping costs have also shot up and supply has been squeezed as Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine all converge into one so-called ‘perfect storm’. The message from Defra, delivered by the department’s lead on packaging producer responsibility Linda Crichton, was that these policy plans aren’t for pausing – not least because the initial timelines on pEPR, deposit return schemes and streamlined household collections have slipped already. That won’t deter the likes of the FPA from continued pushing but as one speaker told Footprint: is there ever going to be a ‘right time’ to introduce all these policies? FPA members are also frustrated with the plastics packaging tax (PPT). The scope continues to cause confusion, with HMRC’s definition of packaging inconsistent with Defra’s. There were also renewed calls to ring-fence the tax to support more domestic recycling and reprocessing capacity but the Treasury isn’t keen on such hypothecation. 

Critical of compostables. Representatives of compostable packaging companies are still livid about the tax, which came into force last month. They say it could restrain growth because it’s impossible to recycle compostable plastics into new compostable plastics. HMRC senior policy advisor Mark Palmer, who ran through the tax and took questions, said there are “no firm plans to change the tax” but “we will absolutely be seeing what impact it has on the market”. The tax will “evolve”, he added. Joe Frankel, founder and CEO of Vegware, said labelling compostables ‘not recyclable’ under new pEPR rules is also “destroying an opportunity” for the products he sells. He has an ally in Margaret Bates, executive director at the On Pack Recycling Label. “We need to sort out the mess we are in with compostables,” she said at the Packaging Innovations show on Wednesday (May 25th). “Compostables and reusables will be part of the system.”

Recycling over reuse. Defra’s Crichton stood firm on compostables. There could well be “niche applications” for packaging in foodservice, she said, but “our initial priority is increasing recycling and compostables are not recyclable”. A cynic might say the government has its priorities muddled given there’s a waste hierarchy that places prevention and reuse above recycling. Crichton admitted that it’s “quite difficult to determine where policy interventions are going to make a difference” when it comes to reusable packaging, but the department has just commissioned a review of the ones in place elsewhere. 

Time to innovate. At the packaging show experts described the “tensions” in delivering reuse systems. Convenience is one, so too the immaturity of the logistics. Linear systems have had 50 years to optimise, noted Matt Morris, sustainability lead at Cambridge Design Partnership. The vast majority of packaging on show in Birmingham this week was single-use but Sarah Greenwood from the University of Sheffield warned that companies not looking at reuse are in danger of being “left behind”.

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