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PRNs work for paper

Simon Weston

As 2020 approaches, there is an increasingly urgent search for a silver bullet for domestic recycling performance, the most obvious of which appears to be the speedy introduction of a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system requiring the packaging supply chain to contribute more funding, more directly towards collection. Yet, the data doesn’t show conclusively that the existing system has failed or that it couldn’t deliver future packaging recovery targets.

A major contributory factor to the marginal drop in 2015 domestic recycling rates was a significant reduction in the amount of biodegradable waste being collected by councils; a factor which the Renewable Energy Association believes to be the biggest single factor causing the decline. Since collection of food waste appears to have risen slightly, this would point towards a reduction in the recovery of other materials such as garden waste, probably the consequence of the introduction of domestic collection charges by many local authorities. This is an understandable if regrettable consequence of the current climate of austerity but has little to do with the recovery of packaging materials and hasn’t affected continuing progress.

For sure, changing social habits and lifestyles have resulted in a sharp drop in the consumption of newsprint (20% in the past five years), reducing the overall weight of paper and board being collected by local authorities and giving the impression that somehow paper recycling through councils has faltered. Mixed papers still comprise the largest fraction of paper and board produced from households, but the composition of this material has changed as, to some extent, newspapers have been replaced by corrugated packaging from online shopping and alike.

The point is that this data doesn’t show that the existing PRN system has failed or that the collection of packaging waste is falling. In fact, the recycling rate of all packaging wastes appears to be increasing, with most sectors significantly exceeding their European Union (EU) targets, and with some potentially beneficial accounting issues yet to be implemented. The calculated recycling rate for accredited paper and board packaging in 2014 was 73.1% and will likely be around 81% in 2015.

One such change is to EA protocol 023, which determines the number of PRNs or PERNs that accredited reprocessors and exporters can claim from mixed papers. Since the advent of the PRN system in 1997 it has been held that the claimable packaging content in mixed papers is 12.5%. Following an industry sampling exercise that involved collaboration between the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), the Recycling Association and the Resource Association earlier in 2015 this will be revised upwards from an interim figure of 23% in 2016 to 34.5% in 2017. This is recognition that hitherto we have been under-reporting.

To add to the complexity of the situation, following the “Paper and Card Flow 2020” report published by WRAP in mid-year, the amount of paper-based packaging estimated to be on the market in 2014 was increased by 860,000 tonnes, reducing recycling rates for previous years. However, once changes to protocol 023 are in place by 2017, CPI estimates that recycling rates for total paper and board packaging could begin to approach 85%.

With such strong evidence of a system that delivers the required targets, the Paper Industry and other stakeholders in the packaging supply chain see little logic or evidence to support radically changing it, particularly if the result is something more prescriptive, certainly more expensive and probably no more effective.

CPI supports the pragmatic approach taken by Environment Minister Dr Thérèse Coffey in recent remarks she made in Brussels that the UK doesn’t want the CEP to be too prescriptive about EPR and….. “that there are multiple valid approaches to achieving EPR. Market-based schemes like the ones in the UK should be allowed to continue. And with a real emphasis on outcomes.” It also makes sense to agree a methodology for calculating performance before agreeing future targets.

From the perspective of the recovery and recycling of paper and board, the facts suggest that PRNs and PERNs are doing the job they were created to do and delivering outcomes. Calls for the wholesale restructuring of the PRN system seem premature and opportunistic, and lead to the suspicion that there are other motives behind those seeking to change the UK’s unique, low cost and apparently successful producer responsibility system.

Simon Weston is director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries

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