Getting down to brass (or plastic) tacks

Mid-February saw the launch of a 12-week consultation on the Government’s Resource & Waste strategy for England, viewed by some as an opportuity for the UK to take a leadership role in the recycling and sustainability of packaging. Envirotec rounds up some industry comment

Veolia’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer in the UK, Richard Kirkman, hailed “a watershed moment” as Defra unveiled the document, which seeks opinion and feedback on proposed measures in four key areas: introducing a deposit return scheme (DRS) for cans and bottles, ensuring consistency of recycling collections in England, reform of the existing extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging, and the introduction of a plastics tax.

The proposed changes will make up a key part of the Government’s upcoming Environment Bill, which is expected to be introduced soon after the second session of Parliament opens in Spring. The plastics tax is due to come into force from April 2022.

Drinks containers reckoning

An approach that has phenomenal success in Scandinavia and Germany behind it, proposals for DRS systems in the UK have been slower to gain traction.

The consultation document presents two options for a potential DRS. One is the ‘all in’ model, whereby a DRS will apply to any and all drinks containers, irrespective of size or contents. The second option is known as the ‘on-the-go’ model, targeting beverages purchased outside the home, whereby the DRS would be restricted in scope, applying only to those 750ml or smaller in size that are sold in single-format containers. This would minimise potential disruption to the existing kerbside collection system for household waste.

Veolia’s Kirkman commented: “With the right approach this could mean moving from 60% bottle capture to nearly 100% and clear up our streets and parks at the same time. For any scheme to succeed, it must work in concert with kerbside collections, building on what local authorities have already achieved.”

One strongly dissenting opinion came from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which took issue with the document’s requirement for stores to take part in a manual system of take-back, saying this “would be extremely problematic”. A statement said: “Issues our members have identified include a lack of space to store returned containers, hygiene problems from handling dirty containers, colleagues having to deal with potentially hundreds of returned containers every day, and the queues and customer disruption this could cause.

The consultation document proposes that the materials included in a DRS could be PET and HDPE plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans, and glass bottles.

The growing profusion of materials used in product packaging has been one of the aggravating factors prompting an overhaul in the way waste is managed. And inconsistency in the format of household collections was another issue addressed by this latest round of consultations. Household recycling reached a peak of 45.2% in 2017 but has since stalled. To get things moving again, the proposals seemed to comprise three principal measures: improving design-for-recyclability of products, clearer labelling on packaging (to allow it to be put in the right bin), and efforts to collect in a way that suits the service user.

Environment secretary Michael Gove hailed the “world-leading tax to boost recycled content in plastic packaging”

Collection consistency

Under the proposed overhaul of household waste recycling, local authorities would collect the same kind of materials from every household. Determining which materials should form the core of this scheme is one of the aims of the consultation. The document mentions plastic, glass, metal, paper and cardboard, and proposes separate collections for food and garden waste.

Views are also being sought on measures to make waste disposal more cost effective for small businesses, while at the same time balancing this with the need to collect more of their waste from them.

On the issue of food and garden waste collection, there were signs of scepticism from local authority groups. Ian Fielding, chair of the waste group of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT), said: “Plans to simplify recycling and improve labelling for the public will help to ensure the quality of recyclables, but we are concerned about the proposed introduction of free garden waste collection. This will almost certainly increase the amount of waste dealt with by local authorities and increase costs.

“Similarly, we are not convinced that mandatory food waste collections will always provide the best solution across individual local authorities.

“The burden of dealing with ever increasing volumes of waste has fallen squarely on local authorities without comparable moves to increase resources. This remains our overriding concern at a time of further cuts to local authority funding.”

Shifting the cost burden

Of course, improved recycling and waste handling will be more expensive, so the Waste & Resource strategy’s commitment to recovering these costs by extending producer responsibility for packaging, has been of central importance, and news of proposed measures has been eagerly awaited. The UK’s 20-year-old system of EPR has notable areas of inadequacy, and offers limited financial support to local authorities to manage packaging waste.

But overhauling this system seemed achievable, in the eyes of waste industry stakeholders. Veolia’s Kirkman seemed enthusiastic about shifting the cost burden to the producer and believed “the stage is set for success if funds are delivered in the right place” but he advocated simplicity “or it will fail at the first hurdle”.

It was vital to ensure minimal unintended consequences or high administration cost, he said.

He felt we should learn from the landfill tax and packaging recovery note system, “both of which have proved simple to implement, police and deliver and, over the last 20 years, underpinned a societal shift away from dependency on landfill towards more sustainable ways of processing material – energy recovery and recycling.”

One area where practicalities need to be clarified is uncertainty over the definition of ‘full net cost recovery’ from producers, and how it might be achieved. The Government also wants feedback on incentives that might encourage producers towards a design-for-recyclability approach, as well as the types of businesses that would be obligated under an EPR system.

Producers currently pay for around 10% of the cost of recycling packaging, but it is believed that increasing this proportion to 100% would provide the necessary incentives to improve the recyclability of packaging, or use less of the stuff.

Tax it into existence?

Commentators in the waste industry also seemed to welcome the consultation on measures to implement a plastics tax, originally announced in Autumn’s Budget, slotted to begin in April 2022. Kirkman of Veolia said “industry has woken up to the need to support it and our research demonstrates that a vast majority of people expect this to happen.”

The document is seeking views on the original proposal to impose a tax on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. One logical aim is to increase the proportion of recycled plastic material that is used to make product packaging, but a consultation last year revealed that this is often more expensive than using virgin material. One reason is the lack of recycled material available. Kirkman of Veolia said “there currently is not enough material recycled to feed this desire – but that’s the point – when the market demands it, we will provide it.”