Government should focus on single-use packaging reduction over recycling, say MPs

Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee has called on the government to focus on reducing all single-use packaging, rather than switching to alternatives such as compostable plastic packaging.

The recommendations come as part of the Efra Committee’s new report on plastic food and drink packaging, released today (12 September), which brings together the findings of the Committee’s inquiry into plastic food and drink packaging launched in March 2019.

The report looks at the current use of plastic packaging, recycling and the government’s recent policy proposals, alternative packaging materials and ways of reducing single-use packaging for food and drink.

Plastic packaging waste has become an increasingly important area of public concern and government has responded to this, committing to eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 in its 25 Year Environment Plan and outlining policies such as reform of the plastic packaging producer responsibility regime, introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers and a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled content in its Resources and Waste Strategy.

Neil Parish MP, Chair of Parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
Neil Parish MP, Chair of Parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
The report calls on the government to focus on reducing all single-use packaging – not just plastic packaging –  and encourages Parliament to lead the way, stating: ‘The government is not placing enough emphasis on reducing plastic food and drink packaging in the first place. Reduction is far more important than recycling and a fundamental shift away from all single-use packaging, plastic or otherwise, is now necessary. Parliament should lead by example, with the ambition to remove single-use packaging from all its catering facilities.’

As part of this focus, MPs on the committee recommend that the government should conduct a review of reusable and refillable packaging systems to determine what works and where government intervention might be appropriate.

Concerns over compostables

The report also expresses concern over the drive to replace single-use plastic packaging with alternative materials that may have similarly detrimental environmental consequences – think tank Green Alliance recently highlighted the damage that single-use cans and cartons can cause to the environment – singling out compostable and biodegradable plastic packaging in particular.

Neil Parish MP, the Chair of the Efra Committee, said: "We all know that plastic pollution of our rivers and seas is a huge problem. However, replacing plastic with other materials isn’t always the best solution, as all materials have an environmental impact.

"My Committee is also concerned that compostable plastics have been introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding about how to dispose of them. Fundamentally, substitution is not the answer, and we need to look at ways to cut down on single-use packaging.”

Compostable plastic packaging must be treated in industrial facilities, such as In-Vessel Composters, where the material breaks down under specific conditions before it is able to be returned to the soil.

The Efra Committee’s report raised concerns that this was not made clear to consumers, with packaging inadequately labelled, and that the required treatment infrastructure is not currently present for such packaging to be adequately dealt with. Due to this, the report found that much compostable packaging is contaminating the dry recycling stream or ending up as litter.

The report states that it ‘doesn’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage’, although it has a role to play in closed-loop environments, such as sporting stadia, where there is a dedicated collection and disposal service and robust communication is provided to avoid contamination of recycling.

The government is currently consulting on standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics, with the call for evidence running until 14 October.

In response to the findings of the Efra Committee report, the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) issued a response defending the role of compostable packaging – it was quoted in the Efra Committee report as stating that compostables could substitute a limited “five to eight per cent of current plastic packaging”.

David Newman, BBIA Managing Director, said: “We have never argued that compostables are a substitute for most plastic packaging. We suggest compostables are useful where they can: help intercept and improve food waste collections, recalling that EU law (and Defra commitments) mean we will all have food waste collections by 2023; reduce some packaging waste from plastics that currently cannot be recycled and will not be in the future, especially when stuck to food; and get food waste back to soil without plastic contamination.

“People who criticise compostable packaging do not understand its role. It is a niche role, but significant in helping solve issues around food and soil.”

Support for wider government policies

On the government’s wider proposals for tackling single-use packaging waste, the Committee’s report expresses support for the government’s proposals on extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging, a DRS and consistency in local authority recycling collections. It recommends improved labelling for plastic packaging to reduce producer confusion and a modulated plastic packaging tax – it calls the proposed 30 per cent threshold a ‘blunt instrument’ – with lower fees for higher recycled content in plastic packaging and the subjection of imported filled packaging to the tax to avoid offshoring of manufacturing.

Furthermore, the report calls on the government to improve data on plastic packaging waste – there is currently uncertainty over how much plastic packaging is placed on the market, with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimating 2.36 million tonnes was placed on the market in 2017 with a recycling rate of between 43 and 47 per cent.

Currently, plastic packaging recycling rates are estimated through the purchase of Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) by obligated businesses – those with a turnover of more than £2 million and handling at least 50 tonnes of packaging a year. The Committee proposes that this de minimis threshold for reporting should be reduced from 50 tonnes to one tonne to ensure more accurate data gathering, while still exempting small businesses.

You can read the full Efra Committee report on plastic food and drink packaging on the Parliament website.

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