PLASTICS PACKAGE: unpicking the resources & waste strategy

The government’s new proposals look amazing on paper, however the deadlines are hardly pressing and the concept of reducing consumption is conspicuous only by its absence. By David Burrows.

Our energy resources may have been depleted by a hectic year of proposals, press releases and policies on the subject of plastics, but fuelled by cold turkey, microwaved mince pies, and a fine bottle of claret, Footprint has pulled together the key takeaways from the government’s new 150-page Resources and Waste Strategy so that you don’t have to.

GIVE ME THE TOP LINE. This quote from the environment secretary Michael Gove works nicely: “We will cut our reliance on single-use plastics, end confusion over household recycling, tackle the problem of packaging by making polluters pay, and end the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste.” And the strategy will help achieve all this “faster”.

SOUNDS GOOD. It does, doesn’t it? And there is lots in there, including: reform of packaging regulations, a new deposit return scheme (DRS) and mandatory reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses (the latter will be covered in a separate Footprint analysis). Packaging reform is the “immediate priority” for government, but some have questioned whether this is strictly true.

TELL ME MORE. Well, take the DRS – a concept popular with campaigners and successful in other countries (as well as the UK now: Iceland this month claimed a pilot rewarding customers with 10p for every bottle returned has been a hit). Gove floated the possibility of a scheme back in 2017, organised a roundtable, announced it in March 2018 and then confirmed a consultation a month later, said Mary Creagh, chair of the Environment Audit Committee (EAC). However, the consultation is yet to appear and the launch date for rollout isn’t until 2023. It is “too little, too slow”, Creagh suggested, as she and the rest of the committee grilled the environment secretary just days after the strategy launched.

BETTER SAFE, THAN SORRY? Fair point, but many of the important decisions have been kicked into the long grass thanks to a series of consultations. In the next 12 months there will be calls for evidence on: the DRS; standards for bio-based and biodegradable products; food waste reporting; the circular economy package transposition (the EU’s one) and extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging. And that means things won’t start happening for another four years – the EPR for packaging is scheduled to come into force at the same time as a DRS, in 2023. (Note. There’s a useful timeline on page 13 of the strategy). But who knows what form these schemes will take.

HAS ANYTHING HAPPENED YET? A food waste champion has been appointed (the philanthropist Ben Elliot) and the first part of a £15m funding scheme to reduce food waste has opened. The government’s thinking is that the timing of all this doesn’t really matter because they have set the direction of travel. “Once government commit to a particular trajectory or course of action it is often the case that third-party bodies, whether commercial or otherwise, know that change is coming and alter their behaviour,” Gove told the EAC. He cited the sugar tax on soft drinks, which triggered reformulation from “early movers” in order to avoid the levy.

AND LOTS OF BUSINESSES HAVE BEEN TAKING ACTION. They have. Only last week, Marks and Spencer announced that it was trialling plastic-free fresh produce aisles. Many supermarkets have also signed up to the voluntary UK Plastics Pact, with targets to increase recycling and use of recycled content. In the Autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced a tax on plastic packaging that does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content – this will come into force in April 2022, subject to consultation (naturally). So, start to unpick this strategy and it quickly becomes clear that this is a vision for the future and not a concrete plan, as Green Alliance resource expert Libby Peake put it. Most of the policy proposals above won’t be fully described until next year’s consultations, and at that point, she went on, their ambitions and effectiveness could very well have been compromised by outside forces, including departments within the government like Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

NUMBER 11 PULLED THE CUP TAX, DIDN’T IT? Yes. The government concluded that a levy on all cups “would not at this time be effective in encouraging widespread reuse”. And Philip Hammond said he will “monitor carefully the effectiveness of the action the takeaway drinks industry is already taking to reduce single-use plastics… and I will return to this issue if sufficient progress is not made”. On the first point, the Treasury wouldn’t tell us what evidence had been used – the call for evidence summary seems supportive of the idea, with the only mark against a “latte levy” being that other single-use drinks containers need also be included. On the second point, industry has reacted but the recycling rates for disposable cups is 8% (admittedly double that of the year before). Those with a vested interest in cups will need to go further and faster because the strategy proposes three new approaches: including disposable cups filled at the point of sale in a deposit return scheme; using the reformed packaging producer responsibility system to provide a strong incentive for business to provide cups that are easy to recycle; and setting targets to encourage higher levels of recycling. But there is nothing on reduction of cup use, a policy that the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group has also given very little attention to.

ISN’T THAT TOP OF THE HIERARCHY? You are listening, then. In fact, for a strategy all about “resource efficiency”, there is very little mention of consumption – that is, limiting it. Whether the new strategy will reduce the amount of plastic packaging in the UK is a point the EAC’s Geraint Davies and Anna McCorrin were at pains to clear up. The latter said: “The proposals here set out that you are going to be reducing the overall amount of packaging in circulation. That is all very admirable. I imagine that you are going to get a lot of pushback on this from some parts of industry.” Indeed, it’s worth noting that, in Scotland, where the government is one step ahead on a national DRS, the likes of Asda, AG Barr and Highland Spring have reportedly been trying (hard) to weaken or delay the scheme. Gove promised there would be no watering down of his packaging proposals, but given the layers of rhetoric it’s unclear what watered down policy will look like. The environment secretary promised much more clarity in the first part of this year.

SO, WHAT WILL COME FIRST? Most likely, the consultation on packaging reform. The plan is to use extended producer responsibility (EPR) to “move waste up the hierarchy”. This is very welcome. The problems with EPR have been well-reported (the Packaging Note Recovery system, for example, ensures producers currently dodge 90% of the costs of recovery and recycling), and there is strong support for change. Gove wants to ensure that producers pay the full net costs of managing household packaging waste (rather than the 10% the “polluter” pays currently). The reforms will also “incentivise the reduction of unnecessary and difficult to recycle packaging, the production of packaging that can be recycled, and the recycling of packaging back into the same or similar products provided there is no conflict with other policies such as food hygiene requirements”.

ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD BE AWARE OF? Lots, but to summarise:

  • A new domestic ecolabel to encourage purchase of more sustainable products, including those that are more readily recyclable, reusable and/or repairable (including kitchen appliances). Subject to consultation.
  • A shift away from weight-based targets for waste, which is good news. However, there is very little detail on what metrics – for example carbon – might be used.
  • Further research (and funding?) in order to better track food waste in the supply chain; plus further analysis of the “trade offs” between plastic packaging reduction and increased food waste
  • There will be a call for evidence to determine standards for bio-based and biodegradable products, as well as an assessment of whether these materials are more sustainable or not.

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