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Improved targets must push industry but be achievable

The UK finds itself in a commendable position. With UK packing waste recovery and recycling levels now outstripping EU targets we find ourselves faced with the question: Can we be even more successful?

We need new, higher targets. Over the last two years, packaging waste recovery and recycling targets in the UK have remained unchanged, in compliance with the EU Packaging Directive. But with these targets now surpassed, we need to work out how far we can push on, and increase our packaging recycling levels further still.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently consulting on new, higher targets for packaging waste recycling and recovery from 2013 to 2017. This news should be welcomed: we must be ambitious if we are to construct a truly sustainable UK economy. If we are to generate confidence and growth in the UK’s green sector, we must not rest on our laurels, and instead demonstrate clearly our ongoing commitment to increasing packaging recycling and recovery targets year on year.

The Defra consultation however raises two important points I’d like to address here. Firstly, any new targets must be attainable. If Defra sets the bar too high, and the UK fails to meet that mark, we risk undermining industry confidence by casting a negative light on the sector as a whole. Confidence is vital if we are to continue to attract the investment necessary to spur future recycling innovation.

The Defra consultation recommends from 2013 a yearly increase of between 1% and 5% depending on material. This would see plastics recycling facing a statutory target of 57% by 2017. With the industry-led Plastics 20/20 Challenge having already set a demanding target of 50% recovery and recycling by 2020, is Defra’s proposed target a step too far?

Let me reiterate: if this is a step too far it is not for lack of industry or political support. Rather, the issue is whether or not we have the appropriate infrastructure and investment to hit such high targets. Without a clear structure in place to help packaging producers reach new target levels, the consultation will unintentionally place the majority of the cost of increased recycling upon the producer, putting financial strain upon an industry which employs 85,000 in the UK and represents 3% of the country’s manufacturing.

Secondly, we must not overlook the extent to which the packaging industry is already a ‘green industry’. The drive for higher targets is, in part, driven by a public desire to see packaging levels reduced on the high street.

This is entirely understandable; packaging is a highly visible waste stream which has long been at the forefront of consumer consciousness. So it is therefore our task (industry and parliamentarians) to make the case to the public that the packaging industry is already contributing greatly to the UK’s sustainable economy. 

The industry has every right to make that case. Packaging prevents around ten times more waste than it creates, by securely transporting food and liquids without spoilage.

Furthermore, the carbon footprint of packaging, as highlighted by INCPEN, is significantly smaller than that of the products it protects. Packaging industry recycling is also already high, with packaging comprising 18% of waste in-household yet only 3% of landfill waste. Voluntary agreements within industry have contributed to this success, with pacts such as the Courtauld Commitment effectively halting supermarket increases the weight of packaging used, despite growing retail figures in the sector.

Defra needs to be careful. We need new targets, but they need to be the right targets. In short: ambitious but achievable. As with most things, there is a balance to strike.

Dan Rogerson is Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and chairman of the APPG for the Packaging Industry.

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