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Don’t just blame consumers for waste

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Fostering a more circular economy (CE) is seen by many as critical to paving the way for a sustainable future. It remains a highly political issue that has implications for policy-setters, businesses, employees and future gen­erations alike.

The latest WRAP report on household food waste in the UK shows that our collective ambi­tion for a CE is more important than ever. In 2015, there was 7.3 million tonnes of household food waste in the UK compared with seven mil­lion tonnes in 2012 – a 4.4% increase. While this increase is not large, it displays that not enough has been done to combat such waste.

With food waste comes the waste of the packaging the food came in, resulting in a sig­nificant cost to the environment and the econ­omy. While the aim of a CE is a bold one to have, it is important to understand the initia­tives that have already been suggested.

In addition to the forthcoming EU CE pack­age, the UK has seen a plastic bag charge implemented in supermarkets. Similar initia­tives are being proposed to continue on this path to sustainability. For example, the ‘pay-as-you-throw’ approach suggests charging for household waste collections based on the amount of waste produced.

As a recent report from Green Alliance out­lined, these charges could be intro­duced as a way to encourage consumers to pay more attention to the rubbish they throw out and, more broadly, to their consumption and waste disposal habits. While this approach is seen by some as being similar to the plastic bag charge it is still up for debate as to whether legislation will be introduced at a national or European-wide level.

And while a pay-as-you-throw charge might force consumers to really think about how they treat household waste, it does not address the root cause of the problem. In order to nurture a true CE and for households to create less waste, the process up to point of consumption should be just as sustainable.

To support this, many organisations are looking at supply chain sustainability as the first step. In doing so, every business should assess its own supply chain and think about how a CE approach could be embraced – from using analytics to more accu­rately predict demand, through to better inven­tory management and environmentally ethical shipping. For instance, Sky now ensures that satellite boxes can be reused, and claims to be saving £7m a year by repairing and refurbish­ing such boxes instead of disposing of them.

Looking even earlier in the chain, packaging will play a fundamental role in supporting a CE. If less material is used in product creation, there is less to dispose of later. Companies’ new approaches such as flexible packaging and intelligent, ‘active’ packaging are early exam­ples of this.

A number of global businesses have begun exploring opportunities to transform packaging scraps and waste into regenerated pack­aging material and, in some cases, harnessing the produced waste and repurposing it into the production of packaging and products. In order to put the CE into practice, there needs to be a new beginning for one product that comes from the end of another.

More fundamentally, though, infrastructure remains a core issue. Despite the efforts of many to use innovative new materials, new forms of packaging and more sustainable sup­ply chains, recycling fast food packaging remains a significant challenge. In the UK, systems do not yet exist on a national basis to recycle foodservice packaging.

Typically, such packaging leaves the restau­rants and is disposed of outside. Systems fail because many residential recycling schemes do not currently accept foodservice packaging. Solving this problem requires continued research to develop recyclable material for food transport, followed by establishing industry standards. And, most importantly, developing the infrastructure to make this possible.

To support the goal of 100% recyclable pack­aging, industry needs to continue to develop technologies that will underpin a circular and 100% sustainable economy, and make more changes to ensure that consumers no longer question which products can be recycled and which cannot.

In the short term, consumer education and initiatives such as pay-as-you-throw can make a difference. But the long-term goals can only be achieved with the co-operation of industry, the Government and educated consumers.

Green Alliance report

Green alliance 1

Green alliance 1

Proposals to increase recycling

  1. Reward responsible companies. Producer responsibility should reward design which helps waste prevention, reuse, recyclability, greater use of recycled content and public recycling campaigns.
  2. Producers should help to pay for recycling. Producers should be given greater influence over the recycling system’s design to ensure cost-effective collections in return for paying a greater share of the costs.
  3. Make the system fairer for local authorities. In England, financial support would have to come from producers or householders, with payments contingent on operating a system that fits within a consistent national framework.

www.green-alliance.org.uk

Phil Davidson is sustainabil­ity senior manager, Europe and Asia, at HAVI

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