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EAC hears producers must pay their fair share to support packaging recycling

Leading figures in local authority recycling called for reform to shake up the UK recycling system at a panel conducted by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) yesterday (24 October), taking the opportunity to ask more of producers when it comes to recycling the products they put on the market.

In September, the EAC relaunched its inquiry into the effects of disposable drinks packaging on the environment, in order to investigate potential solutions to the problem of single-use coffee cups and plastic bottles: 700,000 of the latter are littered every day in the UK, according to environmental consultants Eunomia Research & Consulting.

Discussing what local authorities, central government and plastic producers are and should be doing to improve this were Local Government Association Vice Chairman David Simmons; Lee Marshall, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) CEO, and Jakob Rindegren, Recycling Policy Advisor for the Environmental Services Association (ESA).

EAC hears producers must pay their fair share to support UK recycling
David Simmons (left), Lee Marshall (centre) and Jakob Rindegren (right) speaking before the EAC

According to Simmons, kerbside recycling is now costing English local authorities £3.28 billion, an investment which has contributed towards a 400 per cent increase in the amount of recyclables separated by householders since 2000. Recycling figures have since reached a plateau, however, with England’s rate hovering around 45 per cent. Regarding plastics in particular, around 57 per cent of all plastic products are recycled.

UK producer responsibility scheme ‘fails the Ronseal test’

The panel were in agreement that a greater contribution is needed by plastic producers: “Where the UK is out of step with other countries”, Simmons said, “is in the contribution that producers make to recycling the products that they manufacture.”

The producer responsibility scheme employed in the UK requires producers to purchase packaging recovery notes (PRNs) to prove they are recycling a mandated amount of their packaging materials. However, while producers in France and Spain pay around €150 (£133) per tonne towards the cost of recycling their products as part of their respective schemes, UK producers contributions are closer to €20 (£18). This leaves the vast majority of financing for packaging waste collection down to local authorities.

Marshall told the committee: “In the UK, the producer responsibility scheme fails the Ronseal test: producers are not responsible in terms of a cost point of view, providing perhaps only ten per cent [of funding for collections], while local authorities are funding the other 90 per cent”.

Furthermore, Simmons claimed that 2013 saw £111 million in revenue from producer compliance schemes, but only £37 million of this went towards collection, a percentage which pales into comparison with the £550 million cost for local authorities to collect and sort recyclables that year.

Rindegren also claimed that the PRN system suffers from a lack of transparency, meaning information about exactly how much money comes back to local authorities is not readily available. Resource discussed the system in more detail with industry stakeholders earlier this year.

Plastic recycling not economically viable

Low contributions from producers means that the UK is very reliant on the market for the products it is economically viable to recycle, while other European countries may be better funded to recycle a wider range of products.

Plastic film, for instance, can be recycled, but it is costly to do so as it requires separate sorting machines to other forms of plastic, and fewer recycling facilities have this capability. Moreover, as Simmons pointed out, it is less economically viable to recycle plastics when tonnage from food waste and textiles, for instance, is much higher and has a bigger impact for local authorities.

Marshall called for a shift in how funds are funnelled from producers in order to support and expand UK collection services. The panel agreed that increased producer contributions would increase the proportion of plastic waste it is economically viable for local authorities to recycle, which in turn would increase the value of that waste.

Commenting on criticisms that the current UK producer responsibility system also leans heavily towards the export of waste to boost domestic recycling levels, the panel agreed that it is important to develop a system which incentivises investment in UK packaging recycling. This is particularly pertinent with regard to China’s announcement in July of an upcoming ban on the import of scrap plastics and unsorted waste paper.

The UK exported more than two thirds of its plastic packaging waste in 2016, and the announcement has raised fears of an associated rise in PRN prices in the UK. In response, a group of trade associations in the waste industry, including the Resource Association, the Recycling Association, the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), and the ESA, called for ‘recycling market development to encourage the use of secondary materials in UK manufactured products’.

Negative impact of deposit schemes ‘likely’

In the light of Scotland’s decision to back a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) to incentivise people to recycle plastic bottles, the panel were quizzed about the implementation of a similar scheme in the UK.

Marshall, speaking for LARAC, said: “We’re not aware the evidence is there to say there won’t be a negative impact, and our estimates are that there is likely to be one.” Previously LARAC expressed concerns that a DRS would ultimately divert money away from local authority income streams, discouraging people from recycling their bottles at the kerbside. Such a scheme would likely lead to “savings on the litter picking side, but increased costs on the kerbside”, Marshall continued.

He did acknowledge, however, that the loss of income could be offset if the market for other residuals was better supported through the PRN system: “If there’s an offset that recognises that local authorities are disadvantaged economically, if that was the case from a DRS system... then that removes, potentially, our objections to it”.

On-the-go recycling for coffee cups

Marshall also admitted that while a DRS for plastic bottles might negatively impact local authorities by interfering with pre-existing recycling infrastructure, a similar scheme for takeaway coffee cups could be considered. These items are generally used on the go, and a lack of appropriate recycling options in these areas, such as shopping centres and train stations, mean a majority of coffee cups end up in landfill.

“It’s on the go areas that need the attention, not the kerbside, because the coffee cups aren’t finding their way back into the house,” Marshall noted. “The recycling infrastructure for coffee cups is relatively immature in the UK [...] It could be that that is an area you could more readily explore for DRS, because you’re not overlaying it on existing collection schemes.”

Environmental campaigns charity Hubbub have trialled specific bins for coffee cups in the City of London as part of their Square Mile campaign, and collected over half a million cups in April of this year. In October, the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE UK) signed an agreement with 14 retailers and producers, including Greggs, Starbucks and McDonald’s, to work towards a long term solution for paper cup recycling. The scheme will see over 400 recycling points set up across 97 local authorities in the UK.

The evidence session from the EAC's inquiry into disposable packaging can be viewed in full on the committee's website.

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