A growing number of waste management, plastics and packaging companies, councils, consultants and industry experts are warning that Government plans to get the UK’s recycling rates back on track may not be enough.
Consultations on Defra’s resources and waste strategy have been running since 18 February and will end on 13 May, covering extended producer responsibility (EPR), a deposit return scheme (DRS), plastics tax and harmonised council collections. Now that interested parties have had a chance to analyse the strategy in-depth, it is becoming increasingly clear that some people think Defra’s proposals will need to be backed with hard cash if they are to be effective.
Packaging and recycling company DS Smith was one of the first out of the blocks. It issued a report, Tipping Point, which calculated that the UK is at risk of missing the 2035 recycling target of 65% by about 10 years. Other organisations, including Axion, Suez and Ecosurety, have been vocal in their concerns about where investment will come from and other aspects of the strategy.
This is not to say by any means that the waste strategy is already dead in the water. The warnings are mainly issued on the basis of current investment in waste management infrastructure. There is still widespread backing for the strategy’s overall aims and, if mechanisms for funding new plants and equipment upgrades – including from EPR reform and a replacement for PFI funding – are successful, the sector will feel buoyant once more.
There will still be some unhappy bunnies in the warren, though. Many English local authorities do not want to be dictated to over their carefully planned wasted services, and are set against many of the proposals on harmonised collections.
Local Authority Concerns
Somerset Waste Partnership (SWP) has warned that proposals on harmonised household collections and other policies in the Government’s resources and waste strategy are misconceived and will cost it up to £6.3m.
A board report from the SWP – which comprises Somerset County Council and its five districts – said the proposal for free garden waste collections alone could cost £6m a year based on lost income, diversion from recycling centres and increased collection costs, and might also deter home composting and affect the viability of recycling centres.
It said a DRS for drinks containers could cost anything from £43,000 to £238,000 a year depending on whether this was on-the-go or ‘all-in’.
The SWP also feared that, while EPR for packaging was supposed to give full net cost recovery for local authorities, a proposal to use funding formulae “may mean that this does not truly cover costs”. This is because the formula would pay each authority according to which of six categories it was placed in rather than its actual costs.
The partnership said it had “serious concerns” about the proposal for statutory minimum standards for collections, including a fortnightly frequency.
North Yorkshire County Council examined the strategy in a committee report. It concluded that free garden waste collections, compulsory food waste services and minimum fortnightly refuse collections would be detrimental.
It said: “In theory the proposal to collect a core set of materials makes sense. If other materials are to be added then these should be included from the start to ensure there are no further changes to the requirements for collection, processing, contracts and for residents… However, there are concerns about the lack of markets for materials and where the risk lies if markets fail to appear.
“Independent assessment of collection methodologies and treatment facilities has shown that separate food waste collections would be a more costly option for North Yorkshire. Food waste collection would also damage the impact of the council’s waste prevention campaigns based on successfully reducing food waste and increasing home composting.
“We would therefore advocate against separate food waste collections.”
We are left with an indication that environment secretary Michael Gove may have a fight on his hands if he wants to persuade the sector his policies will be effective.
DS Smith’s report said the UK’s current recycling infrastructure will not be able to deal with an increase in packaging from online sales. It said there had been “chronic under-investment” in the UK’s waste management system, while the amount of packaging waste generated through e-commerce has rocketed.
It said measures announced in the strategy are “important steps in the right direction, but we need to turn those intentions into concrete action”.
According to DS Smith, around 18% of UK retail sales are made online. This equates to 1.9 billion parcels sent through the post each year and, within 10 years, the number of parcels is expected to grow by a further 50%.
The report said: “We risk missing the 2035 recycling target [65% of municipal waste] by more than a decade… official figures today expose a creaking recycling infrastructure that is nearing overload.” The report found that £569m been spent on recycling infrastructure in 2016-17 compared with £630m in 2013-14.
The Latest Defra figures show that overall packaging waste recycling declined from 71.4% in 2016 to 70.2% in 2017. The situation for paper and cardboard packaging is worse, with the Office for National Statistics revealing that the recovery or recycling rate for this material fell by 3.5% in 2017.
Jochen Behr, head of recycling at DS Smith, said: “The Tipping Point report makes for uncomfortable reading, and our research demonstrates just how close our bins are to overflowing.
“We see a system that does not consider the volume of today’s recycling, infrastructure which could be close to breakdown and councils looking to adopt the cheapest waste treatment rather than improve the quality of collected dry recyclables. It creates a compelling case for joined-up, systemic change on how the UK deals with waste and recyclables.”
DS Smith also commissioned a YouGov poll which found that 37% of UK adults said they feared the materials they recycle were likely to end up in landfill or incineration.
Behr added: “It is particularly disappointing that, in the year since Blue Planet II, a moment that has awoken public desire to reduce waste and recycle more, the UK is set to miss both its short-term and long-term goals. This can only be further affected by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.”
Defra’s waste strategy and 25-year plan, along with the Environment Bill, demonstrated a “welcome aspiration”, the company said, but fundamental reform was needed. It called on the Government to appoint a dedicated minister for recycling and waste, with cross-departmental responsibility, due to the “severity of the potential consequences for the UK of inaction”.
Not long after the report was released, recycling and consultancy firm Axion also said that recycling targets will not be met unless there is a “radical step change” to UK infrastructure in order to handle all types of packaging waste.
The company was responding to the Defra consultation on consistency in household and business recycling collections in England and also to WRAP’s Plastics Pact, which sets a target for 2025 that 70% of plastic packaging will be recycled or composted and 30% on average will use recycled content.
Axion head of circular economy Richard McKinlay said: “While it is good to have ambitious targets, without a shift in focus and investment in infrastructure, these targets will not be reached.
“The aim of recycling is changing from being a profitable business in its own right to tackling the growing volumes of waste and a desire to recycle. Through EPR, the economic landscape will change and so must the infrastructure.”
McKinlay said a “full reform” of infrastructure was needed so that it can tackle all types of packaging waste, including pots, tubs and trays as well as plastic film.
He said: “In the UK, we are using the existing infrastructure which was designed around the economics of recycling. In Belgium, they have taken a decision that their existing facilities are no longer fit for purpose and have invested in multiple new plants to recycle plastic packaging.
“This radical step change is likely the only way to achieve our targets.”
He also argued that the focus should be on consistent collection of quality materials, particularly with Far East markets closing their doors to mixed plastic waste, and plants must be capable of sorting all packaging formats collected from kerbsides to achieve the volumes needed to justify the investment.
“In addition to consistency in collections, a consistent process design for sorting plants should also be considered,” he added. “This would entail all facilities being built to a basic, common specification and using certain processes to achieve a standard specification of output, or, preferably, better.”
He said that consumers were being “bombarded” with bespoke collection scheme options, which may work well for businesses but were not always suitable for consumers, making them less likely to participate: “We need to recycle at the kerbside and keep it simple to avoid confusion.
“When the consultations first came out, there was a general acceptance that it was a short time-frame to achieve the targets. It now seems undeliverable. Where’s the infrastructure going to come from?”
Adam Read, Suez
“Consumers will become fatigued with the ever-growing list of bespoke collection schemes for niche products, which collect minimal tonnage in an inefficient manner. Instead the focus should be on enabling the collection of all packaging at the kerbside, ensuring that as much as possible is designed for recycling, and sorting this into fractions which can be recycled.”
Rather than focusing on the different types of packaging, he said the message to consumers should be that packaging needs to be empty, not stacked, crushed and not contaminated, which would result in higher volumes of higher quality material.
Although not responding directly to Defra’s consultations, UK plastic packaging company Cambrian Packaging echoed DS Smith and Axion’s calls for significant investment in recycling infrastructure.
The Welsh company has been tracking the progress of Anna McMorrin’s Packaging (Extended Producer Responsibility) Bill which, if passed, would require producers of plastic packaging to assume 100% of the responsibility for their collection, transportation, recycling, disposal, treatment and recovery. This is around only 10% at present.
Lloyd Harvey, sales executive at Cambrian Packaging, said: “That’s all well and good, but we simply cannot meet that level of recycling if there isn’t the capacity to do it. We need to see investment at national level in addition to a public education programme to change behaviours.
“Until there is a realistic and commercially sound plan to scale up our national recycling capacity to meet the ideals, discussion on what section of industry, Government or society underwrites the cost involved is academic.”
Suez has been carrying out workshops on the strategy’s proposals with its customers, including local authorities, and is drawing up some conclusions. External affairs director Adam Read shares the opinion that recycling targets are unlikely to be met at the UK’s current rate of progress.
“When the consultations first came out, there was a general acceptance that it was a short time-frame to achieve the targets. It now seems undeliverable,” he says. “Where’s the infrastructure going to come from?”
It does not help that Suez estimates the UK’s recycling rate will shrink by about 5% once a new definition of recycling has been put in place, as demanded by the EU circular economy package.
But Read is rather more upbeat than some councils when it comes to dealing with Defra. As someone who has attended a myriad of meetings with ministers and civil servants during the past year, he is confident that Defra “won’t be draconian” in implementing UK-wide local authority collection schemes.
The move to introduce a minimum two-weekly collection regime, particularly, has alarmed those councils with long-term contracts for a different frequency.
“In East Devon, three-weekly has been very popular,” Read said. “They won’t want to change. I think Defra’s policy will set fortnightly as a minimum.”
The waste strategy has not delivered the goods for compliance scheme Ecosurety, which launched its own vision for EPR after rejecting the proposals on offer. The Government has been carrying out cross-industry talks on how to reform EPR, but Ecosurety felt that the four alternatives put forward did not offer any significant improvement and put more financial obligation on UK producers.
In response, Ecosurety has developed its own Centralised Competition EPR governance model, which it feels combines the best from the Government’s four options. The resulting alternative aims to retain an element of competition, protect local authorities from packaging collection costs and centralise the fee modulations to all producer packaging.
Ecosurety head of policy Robbie Staniforth said: “First and foremost, businesses that are going to be affected by the changes to EPR governance need to take the time to engage and respond.
“We would encourage those who remain unconvinced by the four options outlined to consider the Centralised Competition model as a possible alternative… Two months of cross-industry discussions have revealed that, while commendable in ambition, none of Defra’s four models for future EPR governance offer the right blend of characteristics.”
Meanwhile, the think tank Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has laid into the DRS proposals. Its report said a DRS will cost almost £1bn to set up and £184m a year to run, and is likely to collect only an extra 10-15% of recyclables more, worth just £37m.
While it is better to recover and recycle waste than send it to landfill, the report argues that the cost is “excessive”, and “a relatively small proportion of cans and bottles should not be recovered at any cost”.
Report author Chris Snowdon said: “A DRS is a nice idea in principle, but it doesn’t make economic sense. The Government’s own estimates show that it will cost more than £800m to collect recyclables worth just £37m. It is a loss-making enterprise which consumers will ultimately pay for.”
MRW will examine the full strategy consultation responses in a later issue. If a majority of respondents latch on to the concerns outlined above, it will be interesting to see how Defra reacts.