Where would the funds to support an improved UK plastics recycling infrastructure come from – and is the Government really going to continue to push plastic packaging to achieve recycled content when there are many viable alternatives?
Funding support through extended producer responsibility (EPR) could be years away, but the capital investments to take us down the right road are required now. Equally, more assurances will be needed around material availability, security of supply and end market demand for recyclate before private investments can be realised.
There is also the question of unintended consequences and, importantly, whether higher recycling targets or a proposed tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content will actually help to increase recycling levels and cut the amount of plastic that leaks into the environment.
On funding, a reformed EPR system for plastic packaging could be the solution. Through EPR, the producer pays an upfront fee proportional to how much product they place on the market. This levy could help to fund an improved collection and recycling infrastructure.
We know that businesses are willing to pay more into a producer responsibility system to ensure that it is adequately funded and works effectively, but a recent study found that, on average, only 45% of product and packaging waste in the EU is covered by EPR.
An added benefit of such a scheme is that it provides packaging producers with the incentive to be more innovative at the design stage to make packaging easier to recycle.
But in reality there is a gap between the proposals and what might be considered to be the most sensible and immediate course of action.
And while we reach for a plastic recycling utopia, there remains a significant level of confusion about how the target will be achieved while also ensuring that packaging remains fit for purpose.
There is a risk that in striving to meet a 30% minimum recycled content target at any cost, we will simply divert recycled material which already has a profitable end market towards food-grade applications, at significant expense, without delivering any meaningful environmental benefit.
And those currently manufacturing and importing plastic packaging which contains less than 30% recycled material may simply become free-riders in the system or opt to pay the tax, which begs the question: what will the Treasury allocate these funds to?
Stuart Foster is chief executive at Recoup