UK budget: Cautious welcome for plastics recycling support

The UK Autumn Budget seemed to draw a mixture of responses from observers in the sustainability sector, with some approval for new measures to encourage the reuse of recycled plastics, and dismay at a lack of direction on food waste collection.

Billed by the Chancellor as “paving the way for a brighter future”, as Martin Baxter, IEMA’s Chief Policy Advisor noted, the budget was all the same “rather light on climate change action”, he said.

He welcomed a £10 million fund being made available to the Environment Agency to tackle abandoned waste sites.

Plastic waste recycling also seemed to be on the agenda, with the Government announcing what it saw as “a world-leading new tax”. David Wilson of Vanden Recycling seemed happy to go along with it: “The introduction of a tax on plastic containing less than 30% recycled content makes sense. It’s the financial incentive needed to bring those that have dragged their heels into line.”

He felt it would send a positive message to businesses like his own, that are looking to invest in UK plastic recycling capacity. “It puts high quality recycled plastic right up there as an essential manufacturing feedstock.”

Steve Ellin of the Recycling Association, said:

“On the one hand I’m disappointed the 2018 budget speech didn’t really major on recycling. If ever there was a year for more environmental inclusions, it was this one.

“But on the other hand, we’re happy with the introduction of a tax that requires manufacturers to incorporate 30% recycled content into new plastic packaging.

“The language used in the supporting documentation is also positive. There is a recognition that the decisions made by manufacturers, retailers and others within the supply chain are crucially important to the recyclability of material collected – and an understanding that the recycling sector cannot achieve the impossible.

“This measured approach and supporting funding gives us the platform to find and deliver new solutions. I would welcome seeing the money earmarked to boost recycling used to bring uniformity into local authority collections, making it easier for everyone to achieve better results.

“However, the Budget did not mention measures to incentivise development of more UK recycling capacity or details of increased funding from Extended Producer Responsibility for recycling. We hope the Resources and Waste Strategy, when published soon, will fill in these gaps.”

A CIWM commentator also spoke about parts of the puzzle that the Budget didn’t seem to cover: “Recyclability needs to be built in at the design stage and this will require a stronger and expanded Extended Producer Responsibility framework.” The group suggested more might be expected from the forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy, expected in the coming months.

IEMA was keen to see how the proposed plastic packaging tax would fit into this strategy, which it is hoped will shed light on how the Government expects the UK will meet the longer-term goal of zero-avoidable plastic waste by 2042 as set out in the 25-year plan.

Timescale for new tax
In the Single-use Plastics document released alongside the budget, the Government said the new tax would be introduced on 1 April 2022. On this timescale, David Wilson of Vanden Recycling said it “feels a little distant, but with all of the innovation going on in this sector it’s probably needed.”

Paul Taylor, chief executive of FCC Environment, felt it was “now time for much more urgent action to deal with the single-use plastic waste problem.” He commented: “With Brexit only a few months away, the industry needs urgent clarity from Government to ensure that the UK will be equipped with the right infrastructure to deal with our mounting residual waste.”

He continued: “The UK’s ever growing capacity gap requires immediate attention – and we do not currently have in place proven technologies that will be able to process our excess waste. In our view, the Government must therefore support the construction of Energy from Waste facilities here in the UK, a cost-effective technology which will mean less waste ends up in landfill, as well as encouraging waste prevention via ‘reuse’ schemes.”

The environmental group Earthwatch Europe said the Chancellor’s decision to tax the manufacture and import on plastic items containing less than 30% recycled material “is a small step in the right direction.” However, the group said, “the government must not bury the wider challenge of tackling global climate change under topical measures to clean the oceans and the environment of plastic waste.”

Falling short on food waste
One source of disappointment, for firms in the bio-energy sector, was the Government’s apparent stassis on food waste. Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA), said:

“We were disappointed that the Budget did not confirm a commitment to introducing universal food waste collections in England or any further funding support to encourage local authorities to introduce these where they haven’t already done so.

“In its Budget Submission, ADBA set out the case for rollout of universal food waste collections in England to replicate the improvement in food waste recycling rates seen in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as the result of a similar policy. As well as helping to divert food waste away from environmentally damaging landfill or incineration, the National Infrastructure Commission has estimated that introducing universal food waste collections in England would save local authorities up to £400 million in capital costs and £1.1 billion in operational costs between 2020 and 2050.

“We strongly urge the Treasury, BEIS and DEFRA to ensure the forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy includes these measures to help end the scandal of valuable organic materials being wasted in incineration or landfill – meeting our Carbon Budgets depends on it. As highlighted by the Committee on Climate Change, we also need urgent action on replacement for the Renewable Heat Incentive by the end of the year to ensure that generation of renewable heat continues to receive government support.

Should have punched higher?
Michelle Carvell, COO of Lorax Compliance felt “the budget should have punched higher than plastics.”

“We believe that in this year’s Budget, the Chancellor has missed a big opportunity to address climate change, high emissions and landfill waste and to increase sustainability across all disposed materials, including electronics, food and textiles.

She welcomed “the backlash against plastics” but felt the proposed measures “will do little to phase out landfill waste or reform the UK’s creaking recycling infrastructure because they form such a small part of our plastic waste problem.”

“Fashion in particular stands out as an industry in which more environmental regulation is required. As consumers, we throw away around £140m worth of clothing each year, while clothing manufacturers create the equivalent emissions of international flights and shipping combined by burning unwanted or unsold stock.

“We can only reverse this cycle by reducing our consumption of non-reusable materials. Industry has already stepped forward, with many companies now signed up to the UK’s Plastics Pact, but more could certainly have been done by Government to support a circular society by implementing the changes required to the UK’s PRN (packaging recovery note) system.

“In the meantime, we can only hope that more progress will be announced in DEFRA’s forthcoming Waste and Resources strategy.”

Smaller stuff that stood out
Baxter of IEMA also praised an announcement of funding for tree planting linked to a woodland carbon guarantee scheme. He said that “this is notable as a move towards a ‘payment for ecosystem services’ approach and signals increasing potential relevance to the post Brexit future of UK farming and land management.”

He was also more hopeful about technology announcements buried within the budget, such as those concerning Artificial Intelligence (AI), adding that “we need to give due consideration to the huge potential of AI in enabling sustainable low carbon transitions for the UK economy.”

He added: “IEMA members may be delighted to see commitments to skills development, research and scientific investments, and we look forward to understanding more about the specifics”.