The PRN system is ripe for reform, not replacement

Replacing the PRN system with an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme is not the answer for glass, says Recresco director Tim Gent

Over the last 40 years, the UK has worked hard to increase packaging recycling rates through a combination of heightened consumer awareness, kerbside waste collections and enhanced regulation around packaging producers.

The Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system which provides evidence that obligated businesses to have met producer responsibility requirements of the Packaging Waste Regulations has undoubtedly helped to drive this change. The system, while not perfect, does what it was designed to do: it increases recycling rates.

For glass, the PRN system has helped the glass industry achieve one of the UK’s highest recycling rates of any packaging material at 68.8 per cent. Glass also has well established household collection schemes for recycling that have proven extremely effective in changing consumer behaviour and supporting the circular economy. There is no doubt the PRN system works, however there is room for improvement.

The move towards DRS

There has been a lot of focus lately on a proposed deposit return scheme (DRS) as an alternative way to drive recycling rates in the UK.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of an ‘all-in’ DRS for Scotland which will take effect from 1 July 2022. More recently, a group of MPs lobbied the Prime Minister to extend the all-in DRS to the rest of the UK, with the intention of driving recycling rates to meet increased targets.

However those in the glass industry, including waste management experts British Glass and FEVE, have raised serious concerns warning that imposing DRS on glass will be counterproductive, with the potential to reduce rather than increase glass recycling; posing a greater environmental threat in the long term.

Under the DRS, consumers are incentivised with a deposit refund to return rather than discard used packaging and bottles.

The DRS is already widely used across Europe, however evidence of a move towards single use plastics as a direct result of glass being included in DRS is a worrying development. Indeed, Germany reported a 60 per cent increase in single-use plastic consumption after including glass in its DRS.

The 2018 Raise the Glass Study, commissioned by FEVE to assess the impact of mandatory DRS measures, clearly showed that including glass in a DRS did not increase glass recycling rates and none of the top six countries leading the way in glass recycling (Belgium, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Ireland and Austria) include glass in the DRS.

Germany provides another useful example, boasting the most successful glass recycling rate for a glass-inclusive DRS, however, more than 80 per cent of the total recycled is collected through the established bottle bank system; not the DRS.

Reform the current system and challenge the industry

Both Sweden and Austria consistently excel in glass recycling through an efficient bottle bank system and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The DRS puts kerbside glass recycling at risk by diverting glass packaging away from kerbside and bottle bank collections, potentially leading more glass into landfill as the convenience of putting heavy glass packaging into the household recycling bin is removed.

The most effective way to drive glass recycling rates is to make the current system work harder. One of the main issues that must be addressed is the current remelt/aggregate differential, which was designed to encourage glass into remelt but simply doesn’t go far enough.

There is room for a significant increase in the differential which would encourage recyclers to properly invest in effective sorting technology to deliver remelt grade end product. With the current PRN value almost equal for crushed or remelted glass, there is little incentive for recyclers to make the financial commitment required to remelt.

By increasing the differential, more would make its way back to a sustainable quality product that can be reused and recycled again and again. The current system is a good one that works, but it is also notoriously complicated, unregulated and open to misuse and even fraud.

The circular economy relies upon a joined-up approach that ensures resources are used repeatedly for as long as possible and waste is minimised. Revenue generated from PRN sales funds better recycling practices and more sustainable packaging production.

It is time to challenge the industry by reforming the PRN system to unlock the full potential of an already successful glass recycling model with proven results.