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Let's shake up packaging waste before target is set

Defra’s response next month (correct) to its consultation on packaging waste recycling targets will obviously be hugely important in setting the industry’s future direction.

ECO Plastics and several of the other leading players in the market are in favour of the government’s preferred option, the introduction of a mandatory recycling target of 57%. It is realistic and achievable, will be good for the environment and the economy, will give manufacturers and investors confidence and will help to ensure that the current excess in MRF sorting capacity will be fully utilised.

However, this support comes with one major caveat. The targets must be accompanied by other legislative changes.

The introduction of targets will drive up the value of both packaging recovery notes (PRNs) and packaging export recovery notes (PERNs), an increase which is long overdue – it is well documented that the cost of compliance within the UK is woefully low when compared to our European neighbours.

However, the current PRN system disadvantages the domestic re-processor who can only claim a PRN once the plastic has, in effect, been through a melt phase – by this stage in the process up to 50% of the original feedstock has been lost.

The exporter on the other hand simply throws the ‘waste’ into a container and is able to claim 100% of that PERN value. It is essential if we are to develop a credible indigenous industry that the PRN value changes to recognise this fact and that a domestically created PRN be worth double that of an export PERN.

In addition the rules around what the revenue generated by PRNs and PERNs can be used for, should be tightened to focus exclusively on two areas:

  • Investment in domestic reprocessing infrastructure
  • Communication programmes to inform consumers about which materials are and are not suitable for recycling

In particular ‘price support’ should no longer be allowed as an easy ‘bucket’ into which to drop the income.

These actions would drive the investment needed to build the domestic reprocessing infrastructure so desperately needed; with China’s recent announcement around the introduction of her own plastic recycling targets and imposition of more stringent import controls, the day when she turns off the tap to the UK’s waste is drawing ever nearer.

Unless ancillary changes are adopted then the new targets will simply encourage and support the export of valuable resource, and with it green jobs and the potential to build a viable UK reprocessing industry.

What else is required if the increased targets are to be a success?

Effective messaging to the consumer regarding what they can place into their recycling box is the first and most important step.

I have read WRAP’s local authority guidance for the collection of mixed plastic bottles (MPBs) and thought it was a well-balanced document, and its underlying message, “If it’s a plastic bottle, put it in the recycling bin” is spot on. Let us hope that councils read the guidance and take practical steps to adopt it.

Recoup’s numbers would tell us that 280,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were collected in the UK in 2010, a testament to the fact that the great British public have embraced recycling.

But these numbers are derived from councils who only collect MPBs and we know from our own analysis that even a good MPB stream can easily contain 20% of other plastics. I therefore believe the actual quantity collected during 2010 would be nearer to 250,000, or just over 40% of the total consumed.

Currently 90% of households have access to a plastics collection scheme and with the appropriate messaging we could, almost overnight, enjoy a virtual doubling of plastic bottles collected, without any changes to the existing infrastructure.

The other key area that requires urgent action is around the enforcement of trans-frontier shipment (TFS) of waste.

At the moment the level of contamination beyond which a shipment is seen to breach TFS regulations is something of a grey area. However, we and our colleagues in the plastic reprocessing sector have been told verbally by the Environment Agency that they view 2% as the upper limit. Personally I think this target is unreasonable and that 5% is more realistic.

We would encourage the authorities to agree a number prior to the introduction of the new packaging targets and then ensure that the resource is in place to effectively police it. The reputable processors and traders have nothing to fear from such legislation – it would act to drive out the minority rogue element that gives the industry a bad name.

Jonathan Short, chief executive, ECO Plastics

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