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Time to walk the walk on a plastics overhaul

Will 2018 be the year we start getting a grip on the amount of plastics waste the UK produces and recycles? The launch of WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact in April, whereby businesses signed up to a ‘world-first’ voluntary agreement to meet ambitious targets by 2025, certainly made the headlines.

The pact’s launch event was attended by environment secretary Michael Gove and Dame Ellen MacArthur of the foundation in her name, where 42 busi­ness signatories to the pact were unveiled. Gove said such industry action was important because it could “prevent excess plastic reaching our supermarket shelves in the first place”.

Marcus Gover, WRAP’s chief execu­tive, referred to the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to rethink and reshape the future of plastic “so that we retain its value, and curtail the damage plastic waste wreaks on our planet”. He said this required “a wholescale transforma­tion of the plastics system”.

But while the pact was broadly wel­comed, its voluntary nature has been questioned. Dominic Hogg, chairman of consultancy Eunomia, said he sup­ported the objectives but “we just don’t think they should be voluntary”.

The UK Plastics Pact, led by WRAP, is the first of its kind in the world. It will be replicated in other countries to form a global movement for change as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘New Plastics Economy’ initiative.

Targets to be achieved by 2025:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.
  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging

He added: “Business leaders taking action on issues such as climate change have not told the Government to stay out of the way – they have asked it to lead the way. It should be the same with plastics.”

Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner, said that Govern­ment measures were also needed “to ensure everyone plays their part”. He added: “To discourage industry from using virgin plastic and boost their recy­cling and reuse of the material, regula­tions and taxes should be introduced.”

On whether a voluntary agreement was enough, Peter Skelton, WRAP’s lead for the Plastics Pact, told MRW: “This is why it is really encouraging to have the secretary of state leading [launch of] the pact and supporting it, as well as reviewing the different options for reform.”

Experts have previously questioned the Government’s dependence on vol­untary agreements in relation to tack­ling food waste after targets were missed. Skelton countered: “We equally have lots of examples where voluntary agreements have really delivered.”

But he said it was important to learn from the unsuccessful examples. “Which is why it is also crucial that we engage with the consumer, because if we are going to drive circularity and meet these ambitious targets, we need to support the consumer and make sure they are really clear on what they can do with their packaging, how they choose their products and give them really clear guidance – that is also part of our work under the pact.”

Concerns have been raised about the pact’s inclusion of compostable plastic materials. These can cause confusion for consumers who believe they are con­ventional plastics because of their look and feel, and therefore dispose of them as such.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, said it was a “concern” that the pact allowed for plas­tic packaging to be compostable: “We would hope that manufacturers and retailers will focus more on reuse and recycling. There is a danger that com­postable plastic packaging will make it harder to sort and recycle plastics. We must therefore ensure that this pact cre­ates the highest quality recycled plastic to make it possible to meet the 30% recycled content target.”

But David Newman, managing direc­tor of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, welcomed the inclusion of compostable plastics and the boost it would give the sector.

“As we strive to reduce plastics waste and increase food waste treatment, we can achieve both goals by adopting compostable plastics where perishable food packaging is needed, and get these back to composting and anaerobic digestion and to use on soil.”

Skelton agreed that potential confu­sion could arise by more compostable plastics coming on-stream.

“That is exactly why we need the pact to try to unlock that confusion and give clearer guidance. Compostables have a role to play but they need to be kept out of the conventional plastics system and vice versa.

“They can help in terms of driving up the food waste collection – for instance when there is a discrete collec­tion and treatment environment. And, equally, we are very clear that for the mainstream of plastic packaging, using recycling and recycled content is the main focus of the pact.”

WRAP has worked with OPRL to ensure that on-pack labelling is aligned with the pact. But Skelton added that pack labelling was only one part of com­munication because research had shown that a lot of people don’t read it. Messaging for consumers will form part of the pact’s ‘citizen engagement’ work that will be launched soon, focused on making sure consumers are clear about the role they can play.

Skelton recognised it was difficult for “clear and consistent” messages to be given by brands when some packaging types (such as pots, tubs and trays) were not collected around the country. Plastic bottles have only a 58% recycling rate, despite collection by 99% of councils – it is hoped the pact will boost this.

Skelton said the pact was “not just about recycling” but also new business models and innovation, investigating refillable and reusable packaging, so that prevention is also achieved.

Targets include eliminating ‘prob­lematic’ or ‘unnecessary’ single-use plas­tic packaging. But rather than businesses potentially creating lots of new materials, would it be better to focus on simpler solutions such as poly­mer rationalisation, whereby only easy to recycle polymers are used?

“This is about changing the system, and part of that is about unlocking those ideas so we don’t want to stifle innovation,” said Skelton. “But equally there is a role for rationalising certain polymers, and making sure that prod­ucts placed on the market are designed in such a way that they can optimise the efficiency and economics of recycling.

“What is also important is that we give clear guidance to brands and retail­ers on what is optimum, which is a key benefit for firms signing up. They are looking at their ranges, reviewing where there might already be problematic materials and items, and having an action plan to move away from those.”

Good guidance is available, for exam­ple from Recoup, so Skelton said it would not be necessary to reinvent the wheel but to ensure the guidance is up to date, relevant “and cascaded and dis­seminated through the value chain”.

Launch signatories to the pact included those in waste and resource management, plastics recyclers and packaging converters, but council rep­resentation was lacking. He said it had already engaged with some of the key local authority organisations, and that the pact is seen as an extension of WRAP’s consistency project to bring commonality to the numerous types of household recycling collection system.household recycling collection system.

But he highlighted that the launch signatories manage more than 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold through supermarkets and therefore represented a “critical mass that we can use to help shift the system already”.

Skelton hopes the pact will lead to more infrastructure: “Seven years is not very long in terms of getting more capacity into the UK. But we are really encouraged by the strength of support from the waste and resource manage­ment and plastics recycling sectors because they see the targets aligning with what is hoped will be a stronger investment opportunity.”

The power of the voluntary agree­ment and collective action will now be put to the test.

Dan Cooke, regulatory affairs director, Viridor: “The pact sets out clear UK ambitions for a more responsible and resource-efficient approach to plastics by all sectors. “This pact is a big step forward because it enables all stakeholders to direct their efforts to meaningful change on plastic. It also includes crucial commitments to design products for easier recyclability and to include more recycled content, which will create market demand to underpin the recycling process and greater investment in innovation.”

David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK: “The Plastics Pact is a major step forward towards making environmental protection economically viable. We look to the Government to see through work underway to introduce progressive policies that extend producers’ responsibility for their products and packaging beyond consumption, and help to make Britain an international leader in resource reuse.”

Ruben Maistry, sales manager, Stadler Engineering: “The UK’s plastics recycling facilities are already overstretched because they deal with oversupply of recyclables following China’s import ban. The percentage of plastic we currently recycle in this country is very low and the only way to get on top of plastic waste is to eliminate it altogether. “WRAP’s Consistency Report demonstrated how collection uniformity would work in practice, and the Government has a responsibility to implement source-segregated collections.”

Simon Ellin, chief executive, Recycling Association: “We have called on the supply chain to design packaging that is reusable or recyclable, and we are pleased that these large manufacturers and retailers have signed up to do that by 2025. In particular, a requirement for an average of 30% recycled content in all plastic packaging will help to ensure markets for recyclable plastics are sustainable.”

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