The Insider: What have PRNs achieved?
The Insider asks what the UK's producer responsibility system has actually delivered since its inception 20 years ago
After 20 years of producer responsibility legislation in the UK, what has it actually achieved? Disposal costs, not PRNs, drove the rise, and subsequent stagnation, of UK recycling rates. Producer responsibility hasn’t prevented the development of hard-to-recycle packaging. It hasn’t delivered high quality recycling. It hasn’t protected our streets, countryside, rivers or seas from plastic litter. Progress in Scotland and Wales is happening in spite, not because, of UK producer responsibility rules and producer lobbying. It is difficult to imagine how we could have come up with more packaging problems if we’d tried.
One of the few things producers could claim to have funded was an increase in the amount of plastics being exported. But even plied with PERNs, China is no longer willing to take our substandard materials. The people who are paying for this should be ashamed of the system they are funding – it doesn’t serve their interests, nor anybody else’s.
A rare moment of opportunity faces the resources sector. Issues around recycling and waste management – especially plastics – are in the headlines, and for once the stories are about improving how resources are managed, not the inconvenience of recycling for householders.
David Attenborough has brought to the nation’s attention the impact plastic litter is having on the oceans, and the public affairs departments of major brands are scrambling to respond to images of their products washing up on pristine beaches.
Things might seem promising, but then again, we’ve been here before. The creation of producer responsibility schemes was one such moment, but what we ended up with was a system aimed at keeping the cost of compliance – not the total cost, but the cost to industry – as low as possible. That objective has been achieved, leaving the cost of recycling, as well as the problems of commodity price volatility, falling on increasingly cash- strapped councils.
Rather than delivering producer responsibility, the PRN system is the main reason producers in the UK have been able to avoid bearing the true cost of their products. Don’t be too quick to welcome new measures volunteered by industry or trade bodies that have staunchly defended the PRN system. Some may be in earnest, some will be lowest common denominator ideas simply intended to forestall proper regulation – and what we’ve seen so far hasn’t been impressive. Let’s not expect industry to come up with the right answer: the interests of the majority remain in minimising their share of the costs of waste management.
This time there can be no half measures. It’s time for revolution, not evolution: radical change that delivers real producer responsibility, not the modest proposals of the existing system’s main beneficiaries.
What objectives should a new producer responsibility system meet? It should generate quality material. It should drive an increase in products’ recycled content. It should ensure that all packaging is designed with the existing recycling system in mind – not some fantastical possible future system. It should fully fund the collection, sorting and reprocessing of recycling – as well as the collection and treatment of products that don’t make their way into the recycling system, whether that’s residual waste or litter. And it should be backed by hard incentives.
Opportunities like the present moment don’t come often, and if the resources sector doesn’t push government to learn from the dismal record of previous attempts to make the polluter pay, no-one else will – and the result could be another twenty wasted years.