Mountains of plastic bottles are still being sent to landfill in this country or shipped abroad for processing.
This is bad for our domestic recycling industry, bad for the environment and bad for Britain.
Earlier this year, the European Commission proposed a 70% recycling target by 2030, which prompted mixed reactions from the media and industry. While it is encouraging to see Europe drive its vision for a circular economy, setting targets is the easy part. It’s not just about recycling more, it is about smart recycling and reaping the most from our resources.
I have spoken at length about Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) and Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) in my previous columns and I will continue to do so until the message gets through. They are one of the biggest bugbears of the recycling industry, and an overhaul of this scheme is long overdue to improve plastics recycling in this country.
The Government has made limited progress by issuing the GN01 guidance which, without strict enforcement and policing, makes little difference. The lack of definitions with regards to what constitutes ‘contamination’ further undermines its effect. The system is abused and exports continue to reign supreme because it is simply more lucrative and less hassle to bundle everything up and ship it out. As a result, diminished financial returns hinder much-needed investment in the UK’s reprocessing infrastructure.
As a member of the British Plastics Federation Recycling Group (BPFRG), which represents reprocessors and other organisations involved in plastics recycling, we fully support its recent manifesto outlining key recommendations to drive the market for recycled plastics here in the UK.
Among the proposed changes are split targets which prioritise the purchase of PRNs over PERNs. This concept is fundamental to channelling investment back into the UK. Obligated packaging producers would be required to buy a fixed percentage of PRNs ahead of PERNs, which would not only increase the value of PRNs but also provide visibility around how the revenue is being spent domestically.
In addition, this revenue should be spent intelligently, with the specific aim of boosting UK recycling. For example, diverting the revenue towards consumer communication campaigns such as Pledge4Plastics, which educates consumers about the value of plastic bottles, is a simple but effective way of mobilising householders to recycle these items. Without public confidence there would be no material to recycle in the first place.
It is no use creating this ‘push’ for domestic recovery without a market ‘pull’, which is why split targets go hand in hand with another recommendation in the BPFRG manifesto for the ‘offset principle’. This mechanism would allow obligated packaging producers to offset their PRN requirement if they use recycled polymer in their products.
For example, a company which produces 5,000 tonnes of material using recycled polymer content could subtract that amount from its PRN obligation. This would not only boost the market for recycled material, but also help shatter the misleading stigma that recycled plastic is not fit for purpose – an essential ingredient as more and more companies opt to stem their reliance on virgin materials and decrease their carbon footprint. Our Continuum joint venture with Coca-Cola Enterprises demonstrates that the highest quality rPET is available for even the most stringent food grade standards.
Implementing such a process would not be burdensome or require significant legislative changes, and the obligated producer would see an immediate financial benefit.
The original PRN/PERN regime was devised as part of the wider producer responsibility legislation, which requires producers of packaging to pay their share towards the recovery of their materials. As global markets evolved and international trade links improved, this system has become outdated and no longer fulfils this purpose since it is inadvertently skewed towards exports and puts home grown reprocessors at a commercial disadvantage.
This needs to be addressed if we are to develop a solid recycling industry, one that is not susceptible to market fluctuations abroad and capable of dealing with increased tonnages of mixed material. More importantly, these proposals directly support the creation of a circular economy by encouraging the movement of materials back into domestic manufacturing, driving both resource efficiency and job growth.
Jonathan Short is founder and deputy chairman of ECO Plastics
This column was written before the sale of ECO Plastics was announced