The China ban, deposit return schemes (DRSs) and environmental protections following the UK’s exit from the EU were some of the key themes at this year’s Recycling Association (RA) ’Quality First Conference’.
Headlining at the event – held in London on 17 April – was Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.
Creagh described herself as a “remainer until I die”, and talked about the hurdles that Brexiteers still face such as the difficulties around the Irish border.
Creagh raised concerns in her keynote speech around the fate of environmental legislation and environmental gains made.
“What happens if we leave: who monitors, enforces and updates those waste targets going beyond 2035? Because at the moment we have a waste target to 2020.
“The circular economy package sets a target of 65% by 2035: who monitors and enforces that if the European Commission and the European Court of Justice are the not the legal backstops on that?
“There is no body in this country that can do that, and it creates a big legal problem which is something that my committee reported on.
“We said we needed a new strong environmental protection agency to make sure that this legislation did not quietly wither on the vine and wasn’t just quietly dropped at a stroke of the minister’s pen.”
Opinion within the industry is divided on plans for a DRS, and Creagh argued that Scotland may force a decision.
She said: “The SNP Government has a determination to act, which is really driving this, because the big manufacturers don’t want to do a DRS in the supermarkets up the road in Scotland and then not have it the other side of the border.”
Set against the background of huge cuts to public funding and the lack of funding for public information campaigns, Creagh asked why the industry did not use social media.
“I think it’s one of the areas where your industry – and forgive me for saying it – is perhaps wildly behind the times in terms of putting out messages about what is and what is not recyclable. You can do it at a fraction of the costs of public information campaigns.”
The Chinese ban on certain imports was a huge topic of debate at the conference. While there had been a market collapse, huge stockpiles and material on the streets has not happened, but there were voices that urged watchfulness because the situation was still evolving.
Overall, while there was frustration at the lack of transparency from Chinese customs, the outlook among delegates was cautiously optimistic and the point was raised that there had been long-term calls to raise quality and that is what China is doing.
Much was made of the impact of the Blue Planet TV series, which had raised environmental consciousness among the public, particularly with regards to plastic. Simon Ellin, RA chief executive, said the industry needed to “ride that wave”.
Iceland Foods’ head of sustainable packaging Richard Parker (pictured) spoke of the difficulties of converting to more environmentally friendly packaging, working with the entire supply chain and communicating the benefits to consumers. He said that, as a “last resort”, the chain would look at collecting packaging materials itself and carrying out the processing itself.
Parker spoke of the importance of working collaboratively, which was a theme supported broadly, despite difficulties due to competition rules between supermarkets. There was emphasis on working with designers; Sanjay Patel, founding partner from the Packaging Collective, said: “Good design costs the same as bad design.”