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Together we can make the waste strategy work

Industry leaders have been urged to forget their own agendas and come together for the greater good as they respond to the Government’s consulta­tions on packaging waste.

Paul Vanston, chief executive of pack­aging organisation Incpen, asked fellow attendees at the round table event to act without bias in shaping the UK’s future waste management system. Ministers have given interested parties until 13 May to give their views on two key pro­posals set out in the resources and waste strategy: extended producer responsi­bility (EPR) and a deposit return scheme (DRS).

Vanston said recent extreme weather highlighted the importance of improv­ing the waste management system: “We are living in a global environmental emergency. Climate change is on the news every day and we are seeing 21 degrees in February.

“Despite the fantastic achievements on recycling since the early 1990s, the system is sub-optimal in almost every way. I would love to put our vested interests to one side and design an opti­mal system for the UK.”

He added that the current set of con­sultations on packaging waste repre­sented a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference on such a scale.

“Come 2035, I will be nearing the end of my career. I would like to look back on a country that will have reached a 65% true recycling rate, where packag­ing and the environment work more harmoniously together and that the circular economy will have become real in the UK.

“If we don’t work together now to put in place the foundations for all that, [it won’t happen]. These are the biggest consultations I will have in my career. I will have to look outside the interests of my organisation and sector to work with everyone around this table to put in place the right systems.”

Julie Fourcade, head of external affairs at waste giant FCC, echoed the plea for togetherness.

“The opportunity is to start to work collaboratively to solve problems rather than perhaps what might have hap­pened historically, which is looking where the blame might lie,” she said.

Paula Hewitt, chair of the environ­ment board of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (a local author­ity body), said it was important to tackle the waste system in its entirety.

“There is pent-up demand for us to do more. Let’s not get bogged down on individual parts and forget the overall system.”

“From a local authority perspective, we are really excited about the opportu­nities here, both environmental and to meet residents’ expectations,” she said. “There is pent-up demand for us to do more. Let’s not get bogged down on individual parts and forget the overall system.”

There were plenty of voices of caution as the debate went on. Gudrun Cart­wright, environment director at respon­sible business organisation Business in the Community, said it was important to remember the priority given to reducing waste before recycling it.

“Keeping the waste hierarchy in mind, we run the risk of introducing a system that requires lots of waste to remain viable,” she warned. “How do we make sure we continue to reduce the waste we create and resources we use?”

She added that the Government was expecting a lot from companies that already had much on their plates: “We have had comments [from businesses] that this is a lot in a short space of time – hundreds of pages to read. If you’re a non-industry business dealing with Brexit and everything else, getting your head around this is a challenge. It’s mas­sively complex.”

Debbie Huntingdon, senior policy adviser at British Glass, urged the industry to tread carefully in its haste to redesign itself.

“Working together has to be the key to success,” she said. “We need to move slowly.” Later she added: “We are trying to do too much too soon. We already have a system we can build on.”

John Redmayne, managing director at producer compliance scheme ERP, questioned the justification for some of the radical change proposed in the consultations: “All this is predicated on our members picking up a much larger bill and I question the impact. That huge bill – up to £2bn a year – to move from 64.7% recycling in 2016 to 70% in 2030 is a lot of money for a small change.”

Rick Hindley, executive director of aluminium packaging recycling organ­isation Alupro, said it was important to avoid the creation of new problems when implementing changes to recy­cling systems.

“Some suggestions could work against each other. EPR and DRS cannot be seen in isolation or we could go badly wrong.”

“This is an ambitious package of measures,” he said. “Some suggestions could work against each other. EPR and DRS cannot be seen in isolation or we could go badly wrong. We are focused on unintended consequences. We need to do some detailed work on what will work for the UK.”

Hindley sparked debate when he called for a major public information campaign to support any new packag­ing recycling initiative: “Ultimately, the consumer pays, whether through council tax or extra prices passed on by producers. Consumers need to know why prices are going up on the shelves. We need communication or there will be a backlash.”

Truls Haug, managing director at col­lecting and sorting infrastructure firm Tomra, said effective messaging began with the way the system was set up.

“We have not been transparent enough,” he said. “It is important that if we introduce a deposit we separate it from the product price. DRSs are the biggest buyer of advertising in Scandi­navia – they make sure people know about the DRS and what value it gener­ates. If they stop the commercials, return rates drop immediately and dramatically.”

Fourcade said the public had to be encouraged to do the right thing.

“We run a number of MRFs and we see nappies and dirty needles from the recycling bin,” she said. “Even in the simplest systems, the wrong things are going in. Until we get citizens engaged, we won’t raise the quality of what we collect.”

Cartwright called for the industry to look at the problem in a different way: “I used to work in HR, looking after health and safety, and the last thing you do there is expect people to change their behaviour. Are we going to get 70 mil­lion people to do things differently or will we have a different approach?”

Encouraging the use of recyclable material in products would be easier than trying to get people to filter out non-recyclable waste from collections, she said.

“How do we make it easy for people to do things? A lot of fast-moving con­sumer goods companies want decent quality plastic back so they can increase their recycled content. More members are coming to us for advice on the envi­ronment.

“The frustration from progressive businesses is when the rules of the game do not enforce a decent standard.”

“The frustration from progressive businesses is when the rules of the game do not enforce a decent standard.”

Huntingdon said individuals could easily make bad environmental choices because of a lack of knowledge: “For a long time, consumers thought they were doing the right thing when they weren’t – such as not buying wooden cotton buds when they were told we shouldn’t chop down trees. We need to be very careful.”

Leonie Cooper, chair of the London Assembly environment committee, said it was important to account for apathy as well as ignorance: “Whatever we come up with has to be for people who are not interested, who are not asking questions. It has to be consumer-friendly, perhaps something people have used while on holiday.”

But she added that, when change was framed in the right way, it could be hugely successful.

“The single-use plastic bag tax has caused an 85% reduction in the pur­chase of plastic bags. People have done a tiny bit of behaviour change. It is tiny levers to get small change. An MP recently told me his postbag was full of people complaining about plastic. There is a lot of appetite for people to change their behaviour.”

Fourcade agreed that the time was ripe to introduce new systems to the public.

“We have a huge amount of public interest – the industry hasn’t been in the spotlight like this ever before. A lot of the touchpoints in the strategy hit in 2023 and we need to see some short, sharp changes that will maintain public interest while we fix the system behind – we run a danger of losing people with­out quick change.”

Hindley said public communication was critical.

“If you look back at the packag­ing recovery note system of the past 20 years, it has failed on behaviour change and consumer education,” he said. “There is now recognition that some serious money needs to be spent on citizen behaviour change. In Sweden, culture has been critical – it’s what you do as a citizen. That is where we need to get to – to make it socially unacceptable not to recycle. It will take years.”

Cartwright called for a shift in the way individuals were brought into the debate: “It strikes me that, when we talk about the public, we refer to them as consumers, which is very passive, and we should refer to people as citizens, giving them a feeling of agency. Let’s change the language we use.”

William Nicolle, researcher at think tank Bright Blue, echoed this senti­ment.

“Calling people citizens rather than consumers is an important point because you need to engage them. Com­municating this is important – not just changing the word but putting the word ‘citizen’ in front of people in a way where they have to be engaged – this is an area for further research.”

Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) head of policy Pat Jennings said more work was needed to convince her that a DRS would engage people.

“Research showed that up to 60% of people would not travel more than a mile to take a bottle back,” she said. “Small-scale reward schemes have been trialled where people did not bother to reclaim coupons.

“My feeling is that we need a greater understanding of how people will inter­face with a DRS. We need some more pilot schemes.”

“My feeling is that we need a greater understanding of how people will inter­face with a DRS. We need some more pilot schemes.”

A Defra spokesman in attendance said research had been commissioned by the department on whether respon­sibility to take glass bottles somewhere to receive a deposit sat “comfortably” with the public. Hindley told the meet­ing a cautionary tale of an Australian DRS.

“In New South Wales, they intro­duced a DRS and people put containers in boxes for kerbside collection but there was organised theft. Bins were tipped out. We will have professional kerbside collection theft.”

Hewitt added: “We need to look at the climate impact: we don’t want peo­ple driving long distances in rural areas to deliver bottles because the benefit would be negated. Surely we want to encourage people when putting out their recycling at home. We don’t want to unpick good behaviours that already exist.”

Vanston conceded that if a DRS was not being consulted on, he “wouldn’t be demanding it”. But he added: “If it is what the Governments want to do then my organisation would want to be involved in shaping it. A DRS is for a quarter of the population who are recy­cling badly and littering.”

Haug said the current recycling sys­tem was not good enough to justify holding off on a DRS: “We should use kerbside if the system collects 100% of material and recycles it to the same level, keeping it in a closed loop… but it is far from that today.”

Hindley took issue with this, insisting “in aluminium we collect material and send it back into new cans. It is circular for cans. The capture rate is 75%.”

Haug insisted that, unless the capture rate hit 95%, a new system was needed. But Hindley countered: “We have a model that it will be up to 90% in five years with our existing system. We will have can recycling rates equivalent to some of the best in Europe. We are in a very different place to plastic.”

Jennings said that a workshop run by the CIWM on the consultations had suggested that, if EPR was successful, it may be foolish to introduce a DRS that could compete for material.

“Instead the DRS could pick up chal­lenging materials such as crisp packets that are not economically viable to get out of the domestic waste stream,” she suggested.

As talk turned to the relative merits of modulated fees and deposits for pro­ducer responsibility, the Defra spokes­man explained Government thinking.

“The modulated fee approach is the most widely recognised,” he said. “You incentivise producers by having differ­ent fees due to recyclability. The deposit-based scheme is more outside the box – you charge a deposit that can be reclaimed when evidence shows it has been recycled or reprocessed.”

Hindley insisted that modulated fees “have to be brought in” as producers “are used to them from around Europe” and they “drive a move to recyclable materials”. But Redmayne warned that some deposit money could be gobbled up by the Government, causing it to lean towards that approach for the wrong reasons.

“There is a line that says unreclaimed funds could end up with the Treasury.”

“There is a line that says unreclaimed funds could end up with the Treasury. There is a danger that it becomes an attraction to that system,” he said.

Hewitt declared that local authorities must see the cash generated by new recycling initiatives: “It is important that the money goes back into the sys­tem to support recycling. It must not be seen as a mechanism for the Treasury. This is not the right way to fill the gap if council revenues decline.”

She added that using cash raised from the new system to drive meaning­ful change was critical to keeping every­one on board.

“If money comes in then it allows us to do more,” she said. “My worry would be that this could be a replacement for current funding, and then producers will say nothing has changed.”

The Defra spokesman sought to calm concerns about funding leaking out of the industry: “The Budget Red Book says money raised through EPR will be reinvested in the resources and waste system. That is a positive sign.”

Vanston touched a nerve when he then asked whether there should be a unified approach to recycling collec­tions across the UK. And Cooper added: “Wherever I go in the country, red traffic lights mean stop. Can you imagine the chaos on the roads if we had the same approach as we do with different coloured boxes in recycling? It is a non­sense.”

Cartwright said: “From a business point of view, consistency across the country is critical. If you can make it consistent with Europe, that would be great, otherwise it is a mess of bureau­cracy.”

Hindley warned that a DRS being launched in Scotland ahead of the for­mation of a comprehensive waste system across the UK could be disas­trous.

“If we end up with a DRS in Scotland for the wrong reasons… it could dis­mantle what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “It will cause problems with the design of the right DRS for everyone, and politics could put a spanner in the works of what we all aspire to achieve.”

Huntington agreed: “If a DRS comes in Scotland first, which it almost cer­tainly will for political reasons, it will cause great confusion.”

pat jennings

pat jennings

Pat Jennings, CIWM:

“Research showed that up to 60% of people would not travel more than a mile to take a bottle back.”

rick hindley

rick hindley

Rick Hindley, Alupro:

“We will have can recycling rates equivalent to some of the best in Europe. We are in a very different place to plastic.”

leonie cooper

leonie cooper

Leonie Cooper, London Assembly:

“An MP told me his postbag was full of people complaining about plastic. There is a lot of appetite for people to change their behaviour.”

paul vanston

paul vanston

Paul Vanston, Incpen:

“A DRS is for the quarter of the population who are recycling badly and littering.”

paula hewitt

paula hewitt

Paula Hewitt, ADEPT environment board:

“It is important that the money goes back into the system to support recycling. It must not be seen as a mechanism for the treasury.”

truls haug

truls haug

Truls Haug, Tomra:

“In Scandinavia they make sure people know about the DRS and the value it generates. If they stop the commercials, return rates drop immediately and dramatically.”

gudrun cartwright

gudrun cartwright

Gudrun Cartwright, Business in the Community:

“We should refer to people as citizens, not consumers, to give them a feeling of agency.”

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