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Recycling sector is at a crossroads

As MPs return to Parliament after the summer recess, it’s important for the recycling industry to think about what it should be asking and indeed expecting from those politicians who hold the levers of power and have the ability to set the rules.

A few months ago I was invited to appear in front of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA) as part of its inquiry into waste management - it has never been more clear that the sector is at a crossroads.  Simple and effective regulatory changes need to be accompanied by a change of tack if we are to ever meet our household recycling targets.

There are three things that politicians of all parties should be focussing on if they are serious about the UK creating a recycling sector that delivers a truly circular economy: a properly funded programme of public education, the creation of a market that encourages investment in British recycling and the inclusion of recycling at the very centre of economic policy.

We need to shift our mindset. Outside the recycling industry, waste is not considered to be a resource. To Parliamentarians and general consumers, waste is something we put in the conventional black bin or the recycling bin and forget about. Scant thought goes into what happens to it next.

Most of the discussions during the House of Commons inquiry centred on how Government and industry can and should encourage people to dispose of their waste effectively and recycle more. Little emphasis was placed on why households should do so, to help them realise the value of their waste. We won’t achieve improved recycling until we change the way people perceive the items they throw away, and adapt the way we talk about ‘waste’ as a nation.  

We need a clear and consistent communications campaign to challenge consumer perceptions. This would need to actively demonstrate the monetary value that discarded household items can have. As part of this, we can show that what many people believe is ‘waste’, is actually a resource which can be sold, processed and made into new items. Furthermore, we must demonstrate that recycling is not just part of one’s civic duty to the environment; it is also providing a vital resource for UK recycling plants and manufacturers based in the UK. This generates growth, creates jobs, bolsters UK GDP, and increases tax revenue to the Treasury, which can be invested in communities. One way the Government could easily finance a public awareness campaign is by using the VAT revenue collected as part of the single-use plastic bag charge. Even a fraction of this revenue would be sufficient for an effective campaign.

There is also an urgent need to review the current regulatory landscape for recycling. The Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system has been the bugbear for British reprocessors for quite some time. Currently, plastic reprocessors can only claim a PRN credit based on the input to the washing process, or in extreme cases melted down.  Losses of up to 30% of the original feedstock through the removal of dirt, moisture and other contamination can be expected during sorting and before the washing stage. Whereas exporters can claim the export version of a PRN, the PERN, on 100% of the tonnage by simply baling unprocessed material, usually containing contamination like waste paper, dirt, glass, liquid and organic residue.

Although the Government believes it has taken some action to level the playing field by re-issuing GN 01 guidance, in practice this makes little difference. Contamination within bales has never qualified for PERNs, but without strict enforcement and clear, set contamination thresholds, the system will continue to inadvertently incentivise export ahead of UK manufacturing.

Growing the UK’s domestic reprocessing industry should be a core policy objective of all the main political parties. While Defra’s responsibility is meeting national recycling targets, greater commitment from other parts of Government is also needed. I was pleased to see the announcement that there will be a BIS Minister responsible for co-ordinating with Defra on waste matters, but this is far short of it committing to making waste a core part of its business and economy agenda. Instead, the Government should make clear that it intends to reverse its late 2013 statement to industry that it only intends to reform policy where it believes a market failure has taken place and instead commit to proactively delivering fundamental reforms to the market place.

Clear communication, regulatory change and commitment are all critical to the success of the recycling industry in this country. If we do not raise our game not only will we fail to reach our legally binding recycling targets, but we will lose a valuable opportunity to bolster our own manufacturing industry and to create a sustainable, circular economy.

Jonathan Short is founder and deputy chairman of ECO Plastics

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