EA to reduce packaging recovery operator site inspections

The Environment Agency’s packaging producer responsibility monitoring plan 2020 has dropped its planned number of site inspections of accredited operators to 110 from 160 in 2019.

The figure now reflects the minimum number of site inspections that the EA will carry out in 2020, rather than the total number of site inspections it plans to carry out. All operators identified as high risk (red and amber categorised sites) will be visited and visits will be directed by the EA’s risk profiling assessments.

EA to reduce packaging recovery operator site inspectionsAll operators that reprocess plastic packaging waste and generate Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) as proof of recycling under the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations must be accredited by the EA to be allowed to generate PRNS.

A spokesperson for the EA said: “The inspection figures in our 2020 plan are the minimum number of audits that we will undertake for the year. We expect the actual number of audits undertaken to be higher and will likely exceed the number of audits delivered in 2019. Having a minimum number of audits, as opposed to a forecasted number of audits that was used in last year’s plan helps us in being flexible to focus on the highest risk sites.”

While the target of a minimum of 110 site inspections may appear to be less ambitious than last year’s total target of 160, in 2018 only 75 site visits were undertaken against a target of 80. It is likely that site inspections fell short of the 160 targeted last year, and the minimum of 110, if completed, may in fact represent an increase in monitoring. The full number of sites inspected in 2019 will be revealed in late March.

Phil Conran, Director of 360 Environmental and Chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP), said: “It is disappointing to see the level of compliance monitoring proposed in the latest plan having fallen from the 2019 plan. This has been raised with the EA by the ACP and we have been assured that the structural changes instigated by the EA will ensure that their scrutiny of accredited operators will be significantly more effective in 2020. We should therefore focus more on the outcome than the numbers and I think operators need to be aware that they are likely to be at much higher risk of detection and prosecution if they attempt to defraud the PRN system in 2020.”

The EA completed restructuring in the July of last year, changing the reporting requirements for the National Packaging Waste Database for plastic, requiring exporters to show the gross tonnage of net Packaging Export Recovery Note (PERN) claims and to show the type of plastic they are exporting, while 14 new dedicated officers have been hired to focus on packaging producer responsibility from February 2020. The EA hopes that this single nationally-managed delivery approach will allow it to identify abuse of the PRN system much more efficiently and effectively.

Robbie Staniforth, Head of Policy at compliance scheme Ecosurety, said: “Site inspections play an integral part in ensuring the robust reporting of packaging recycled in the UK. Although a useful indicator, the quantity of audits carried out by the regulator is not necessarily the most important metric. On the whole, the vast majority of reprocessors and exporters have excellent processes and procedures in place to track the volume of waste recycled. When it comes to ensuring the integrity of reporting, using intelligence to conduct unannounced visits are equally, if not more, important.

“I welcome the regulator taking a risk-based approach, using intelligence to conduct their activities. The 14 new officers starting in February should certainly help them to reach their targets and deliver better overall enforcement of the system.”

System under pressure

Packaging waste has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with the recyclability of packaging and the export of packaging waste to developing countries among the primary concerns.

In July 2018, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) called into question the monitoring of the packaging producer responsibility system, exposing the significant proportion of the packaging recycling rate that is accounted for by exports and questioning the EA’s ability to provide effective controls and oversight of compliance, stating it ‘does not have a good understanding of the extent of fraud and error’ in the system.

The packaging recycling system is under the increasing glare of the spotlight, accentuated by reports that have seen countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka announce the return of contaminated waste to countries including the UK and images of the impact of dumped waste from developed countries on Southeast Asian communities, with the UK Government even committing to banning exports of plastic waste to developing countries. As such, the EA has stepped up its monitoring efforts, setting up an investigation into claims of fraud and system abuse to crack down on false claims under the PRN system in late-2018.

You can view the EA’s packaging producer responsibility monitoring plan 2020 on the EA’s website.

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