With Defra’s proposed carrier bag levy recently described as a ‘complete mess’ by the Environmental Audit Committee, Tony Breton explains how evidence from the organics recycling industry could be used to improve policy
Robust evidence is essential for policymakers, but more important is the intelligence to understand and accept the evidence rather than paying lip service to (or disputing!) the facts. Regular readers will be well aware of the abuse of evidence in the frequency of residual waste collection issue; a similar story is brewing over the humble carrier bag.
Forced into action by the proactive devolved nations, Defra last year called for evidence on its plans to introduce a charge for single-use carrier bags. Unlike the other nations whose goals revolved around resource consumption and littering, Defra also aims to bring bag manufacturing back to the UK. So far, very good.
The thinking is that the shift in manufacturing could be achieved by exempting biodegradable plastic bags from the charge and encouraging them to be produced in the UK. Unfortunately, in the official documents and discussions to date, including a session of the Environment Audit Committee (EAC), there has been no definition of ‘biodegradable’. Defra considers the perfect bag to be biodegradable in every environment from the bottom of the ocean to an industrial composting facility, whilst at the same time being compatible with current recycling processes. Conversely, David Newman from the Italian Composting Association (CIC) and President of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), told the EAC: “The perfect bag is no bag at all.”
Coming from Italy, Newman knows what he’s talking about. Italy is the only country in Europe to have banned single-use polythene bags while at the same time exempting biodegradable bags. In Italy, biodegradable is considered, in law, to mean compostable according to EN13432. These bags have also proven to biodegrade in soil and an ongoing Italian Institute of Plastics study has shown 82 per cent biodegradation in 220 days under marine conditions.
A key point widely missed in UK discussions is that ‘exempt’ does not necessarily ‘free’. In Italy, consumers pay €0.07-0.10 for each compostable carrier bag, knowing it can be reused for food waste collection. In fact, the ban and exemption have been fully endorsed by CIC because plastic contamination in organic recycling is a major issue in Italy. Since the introduction of the ban, contamination has fallen dramatically while food waste diverted has increased. Regarding mechanical recycling, CONAI – the Italian packaging association – has found that compostable materials do not impact on the plastic recyclate at levels below 10 per cent.
Much of the evidence submitted in the UK regarding an exemption for biodegradable plastics was based not just on their biodegradability, but on their impact on mechanical and organic recycling. At the EAC, Chase Plastics confirmed it is relatively easy to separate compostable plastics from traditional plastics using infrared or density separators. Organic recyclers, on the other hand, who are the single largest contributor to UK recycling tonnage, have a massive issue with plastic contamination, having to deal with somewhere in the region of 65 kilotonnes of non-compostable household plastics a year – compared to 7,500 tonnes of household plastic film collected for recycling in 2012, according to RECOUP. In the UK, though, due to organic recycling’s contribution to national tonnages, no one really wants to know about process rejects.
This could change with the drive to improve quality gathering pace: the Renewable Energy Association’s Organics Recycling Group has been calling for a system of frequent sampling and reporting (similar to the flawed MRF Code of Practice), which would at least improve evidence. Addressing the actual issue of contamination is up to operators and local authorities.
The heated carrier bag debate risks losing sight of the opportunities that the government is laudably seeking. The organics recycling industry has and continues to provide the evidence of the benefits of biodegradable and compostable carrier bags to all actors in the emerging circular bioeconomy. All that is needed to make it work, for everyone, is for someone at Nobel House to take the time to fully understand that a carrier bag is not a single issue.