A review into the packaging recovery note (PRN) scheme is to be carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO) following concerns that the system is opaque and could be subject to fraud and non-compliance.
The Government has acknowledged the need to reform the PRN scheme. During recent inquiries, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) raised concerns about the lack of transparency over how recovery note revenue is spent and the lack of incentives for eco-design.
There are also worries about how exported waste is treated once it arrives in destination countries.
The EAC has asked the NAO to assess whether the Government has good oversight of the PRN scheme’s performance against its objectives, and whether it has taken a robust approach to preventing fraud and non-compliance.
Mary Creagh, EAC chair, said: “Packaging waste is contributing to the ever-growing levels of plastic pollution in the UK and abroad. PRNs are intended to make companies do their bit for recycling, but there is significant concern that PRNs are distorting the market in favour of exports rather than reprocessing in the UK.
“The NAO review will give my committee an insight into the effectiveness of the PRN system, enabling us to assess whether the Government is taking the right action to ensure high levels of recycling in the UK.”
Robbie Staniforth, policy manager at compliance scheme Ecosurety, was “extremely pleased” by the review.
“We have often felt like a lone voice bringing this debate to the surface in the past three years. But we felt it was absolutely necessary, with our unique vantage point inside the waste and recycling industry, to explain the frustrations that many of our producer members felt about the inefficiencies of the current system.”
He added they were willing to work with civil servants to improve the system.
Before the announcement of the review, a report by Eunomia earlier this week disputed the accuracy of packaging recycling data, sparking a row.
Samantha Harding, litter programme director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “These money-making compliance schemes have always avoided being transparent about how they operate. It is critical that the Government investigates this now, because we must be able to trust the figures that are influencing important policy decisions, such as whether England will join Scotland in having a deposit return scheme.”
But Valpak, the UK’s largest compliance scheme, said there was no evidence that producers or their compliance schemes were under-reporting packaging returns.
”To calculate the total tonnage of packaging put on the market, we use the UK’s largest and most comprehensive database of packaging weights covering hundreds of thousands of different products and representing more than 50% of UK packaged good sales.
“We have no reason to believe the UK is reporting to a lower standard compared with other EU member states. In fact we found that, in a number of cases, our data is likely to be more accurate.”
The company said member obligation calculations were audited by the Environment Agency (EA) and reported to the National Packaging Waste Database, and providing false data was an offence.
”Our research into the UK’s plastic recycling rates is conducted with a range of stakeholders including Defra and the EA. All the work has been through expert peer review by industry stakeholders and is fully published,” it added.