‘No sense of direction’ to Defra’s actions to reduce packaging waste, says EAC

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was criticised for a lack of action on packaging waste when questioned yesterday (31 October) by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), as part of an ongoing inquiry into the impact of disposable drinks packaging on the environment.

‘No sense of direction’ to Defra’s actions to reduce packaging waste, says EAC
Resources Minister Therese Coffey
The committee spoke to Resources Minister Therese Coffey, along with Chris Preston, Defra’s Deputy Director for Waste and Recycling, and focused on Defra’s actions to tackle the impact of plastic bottles and disposable coffee cups.

Defra has established an independent group (the Voluntary and Economic Incentives Working Group) in order to consider ways to reduce littering as well as to improve reuse and recycling of drinks containers.

The group has put out a call for evidence which was recently extended for three extra weeks, according to Coffey, due to reluctance within the industry to submit sensitive information, and the committee was told that until the call for evidence comes to a close on 20 November Coffey would not be revealing government views.

However, EAC chair Mary Creagh criticised this noncommittal attitude and accused the government of having “no real sense of direction” in its approach to tackling packaging waste. According to Creagh, 15 million plastic bottles a day are littered, landfilled or incinerated in the UK.

In response to the litter problem, Coffey mentioned the Litter Innovation Fund, a programme funded jointly by Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to find innovative solutions to littering. At £450,000, Creagh called the fund “a drop in the ocean” when compared to the £800-million cost for councils to deal with littering and fly-tipping.

Producer contributions under review

Last week, the EAC heard from leading figures in local authority recycling, including Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), who called for UK producers to make a greater contribution towards recycling the products they manufacture. The UK producer responsibility system currently sees the lowest average contribution per tonne of recyclables in Europe, meaning, Marshall pointed out, local authorities have to fund the majority of costs for packaging collection and recycling.

Questioned on this topic, Preston claimed the issues are well-known and under review as part of a new Waste and Resources Strategy for 2018, but Coffey would give no firm answers on financial measures to encourage investment in and expansion of UK recycling and told the committee: “I don’t know that regulation is necessarily the answer”,

However, the panel did discuss the potential of a modulated fee structure to incentivise the use of more easily recyclable plastics, for instance lowering the cost of packaging recovery notes for single polymer plastics compared to mixed polymers, which only one facility in the UK currently has the means to recycle.

‘Lackadaisical’ attitude to China’s import ban

Last month, a group of major waste trade associations sent a joint letter to Coffey urging high-level diplomacy on the Chinese ban on the import of 24 grades of waste, as well as a refocusing of work on developing domestic secondary markets.

On China’s decision to ban the import of all scrap plastics and unsorted waste paper from January 2018, Coffey said it would be “a headache and an opportunity” for the UK: “It’s a good challenge to us in our industry and to us as a country about how we improve the quality of the waste that we have, and there’s opportunities to process more waste here rather than exporting it to the other side of the world just because it’s a bit cheaper to do so.”

In 2016, according to a coalition of trade associations from the waste industry (including the Resource Association and the Environmental Services Association), over 260,000 tonnes of plastics and 3.7 million tonnes of paper and card were exported to China from the UK.

In light of this, the EAC expressed doubts that the UK has the infrastructure to recycle here what is currently being sent to China. Coffey claimed China’s actions might stimulate the UK market, and that Defra has “encouraged the industry to provide the capacity that they believe we need”, an answer committee member and Green Party Co-Leader Caroline Lucas dismissed as “lackadaisical”.

Lucas said: “This is happening in eight weeks. It doesn't sound like the issue is being treated with the urgency that it presumably deserves."

Creagh added: “Your warm words of encouragement are not going to be enough to encourage businesses - many of them multinationals - to invest in reprocessing here, unless there is a guarantee that there will be an income stream.”

Potential for bottle return scheme

In September, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed the Scottish Government to introducing a deposit return scheme (DRS) in order to incentivise consumers to recycle plastic drinking bottles. Commenting on the possibility of a similar scheme being introduced in England, Coffey said Defra is still awaiting evidence before making a decision, asking: “It does seem to work in other countries, so how can we make it work here?”

Measures to reduce coffee cup waste were also discussed, including a consumer charge for single-use cups or a discount for reusables, something trialled by Starbucks in 2016. However, the panel returned to the criticism that UK recycling system, without further funding, is fundamentally unequipped to deal with higher recycling rates.

Creagh said: “Your waste system has failed to create a reprocessing capacity - if we were to collect two and a half billion coffee cups a year [the number currently estimated to be thrown away annually in the UK] we’d be overwhelmed, we wouldn’t know what to do with them, because there isn’t the processing facility to deal with it.”

The committee questioned why Defra was not using incentives to make coffee cup recycling more viable in the UK, as well as to encourage the production of compostable cups instead of the more common, plastic lined variety. Coffey responded that Defra is still in discussion across the industry with producers, retailers and processors in order to try and “stimulate some proactivity”:

“We are bringing people together and I do see that as one of the roles of the minister, to try and bring together different parts of the industry to try and tackle this.”

The entire evidence session with Coffey can be heard in full on the Environmental Audit Committee’s website.

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