A report claiming that the UK overestimates the amount of plastic packaging that gets recycled has reignited arguments over the accuracy of data underpinning the packaging recovery note (PRN) system.
Eunomia’s report Plastic Packaging – Shedding Light on the UK Data concludes that the annual total for such waste is around 3.5 million tonnes, which contrasts sharply with the latest official statistics for 2015 from Defra indicating that UK households and businesses produced 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste.
Eunomia argues the actual recycling rate may be ten percentage points lower than the Government claims and below – not above – similar members states in the EU.
The report points out that the lower the figure for packaging placed on the market, the lower the fees that producers have to pay into compliance schemes. A lower figure also reduces the amount of material that needs to be recycled in order to meet the targets.
Eunomia chairman Dominic Hogg said the conclusion was not surprising, and the existing system of producer responsibility was failing.
“The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost rather than achieving high-quality recycling of plastic packaging. The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures,” he said.
The report also criticises the current PRN system, claiming that it delivers compliance to the recycling target at the “lowest possible cost to industry” rather than the need to recycle.
However, there is growing accord within the industry and in Whitehall that PRNs should be reconsidered under a general review of producer responsibility.
The report reasserts a figure of 10% for the proportion of the cost of recycling borne by producers. This amount is widely circulated in the industry, and particularly by local authorities and their contractors which collect and recycle packaging from households and some businesses.
But compliance scheme Valpak was quoted in a BBC news report as saying the figure was nearer 25-30%.
Phil Conran, who chairs Defra’s Advisory Committee on Packaging, accepted that the PRN system needed reform. But he told MRW that Eunomia was using local authority data whereas he believed that from the National Packaging Waste Database (NPWD) was more accurate.
He said the NPWD indicated approximately two million tonnes in 2016 and Valpak’s detailed Plastic Flow report for WRAP had used this to come up with a figure of 2.62 million, based on certain assumptions about extra material on the market, such as that from smaller manufacturers which are not required to declare material placed on the market.
Conran said the estimated net cost of packaging collection was around £300m annually. Although PRN revenues varied, revenue was typically £80m, with a further £20m cost to producers in compliance schemes and other fees. This total of £100m was therefore about a third, much closer to Valpak’s 30%.
”The way we report on packaging is better than most member states, so to suggest the UK rate is lower than the rest of Europe is misrepresenting the situation,” said Conran.
Environmental Services Association recycling policy adviser Jakob Rindegren said: “Ensuring that accurate figures underpin the PRN system is unfortunately an area not given enough attention in the reform debate. Eunomia’s report is also helpful in putting the spotlight on how we measure and report on recycling.
“As we seek to ensure that more of our waste is recycled in the UK, this clearly needs to be informed by robust data, both for the industry and for policy-makers thinking about supportive policies as part of [Defra’s] resources and waste strategy.”