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We need a recycling re-think

Barry Turner, CEO of PAFA, the Packaging and Films Association, says the UK Government’s rushed proposal on packaging recycling targets has failed to address the problems endemic in UK waste policy

At a recent meeting in the House of Commons, senior members of the industry gathered to lend their weight to a growing lobby for a change in approach to plastics recycling in the UK. The group included senior leaders from PAFA, Plastics Europe (the Europe-wide polymers producer group) and the British Plastics Federation. As part of the ‘2020 Challenge’, they have long been engaged in a dialogue with stakeholders and DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) aimed at setting out a roadmap to achieve the diversion of plastics from landfill and to improve recycling rates over a 10-year period. Progress is due to be reported this summer.

PAFA chief executive Barry Turner says: “In spite of all our efforts it was very disappointing to see DEFRA rush through a proposal that totally failed to address the key goal of diversion of plastics from landfill and instead just focused on setting a recycling target. Most frustrating was the fact that this was done before the ACP (Advisory Committee on Packaging) and plastics taskforce had completed its work and the ACP had reported its findings.

“I am not alone in being amazed that any government department can require representatives of the entire supply and recovery chain – from raw materials and conversion through retail, local councils and the waste management/reprocessing industry – to give up their valuable time to attend meetings over a 12-month period and contribute in good faith to a process that is then bypassed before their efforts are scheduled to be completed and reported. This will make industry very wary of engaging with this department of government in the future.”

PAFA stressed that although the present policy sets a plastics recycling target of 42% by 2017, it is silent on how the remaining 58% is to be dealt with.

“I can only conclude that this government – unlike Scotland and Wales, who have set clear targets in relation to diversion from landfill – is not at all concerned that a valuable resource like plastics will continue to be sent to landfill beyond 2017. This indicates that, in England, waste policy lacks any joined-up thinking and is in a complete muddle,” says Turner.

PAFA believes that to achieve the required increase in recycling will require substantial volumes of plastics pots, tubs, trays and film to be collected, as well as more plastics bottles. This will require those local councils not already offering the service to do so, and even those that are, to significantly improve their collection rates of plastics.

But Turner is sceptical that councils will offer an improved plastics collection service when they have no plastics material-specific targets to meet locally. This means that, because plastics are light weight, and there is no specific plastics recycling target, councils will continue to focus on heavier materials to meet their overall target.

“Even if we can find a way past this major obstacle,” he says, “the next bridge to cross is communications. We all know that to change consumer behaviour requires strong and convincing communications at local level and, yet again, with no local plastics recycling targets and no intention to change their thinking, why would councils spend increasingly scarce resources to promote plastics collection and recycling?”

Turner says that when he addressed these questions to DEFRA minister Lord Taylor, the response amounted to an admission that the Government had not helped itself with the ‘localism agenda’, but the minister was confident that peer pressure alone would be effective. Assuming he is right, PAFA says the current infrastructure could not cope with any significant increase in plastics waste of all types.

“Many MRFs (Municipal Recycling Facilities) are simply not equipped to sort the many plastics products in use at present – most were designed to separate out plastics bottles, not pots, tubs, trays and films,” says Turner. “What infrastructure does exist is already struggling with the very limited volumes of films and pots, tubs and trays being collected at present.”

The plastics industry had hoped to work with the Government and all of the other stakeholders to address this issue systematically over a 10-year period “to avoid potential chaos” but, according to Turner, the Government now wants to squeeze the process into five years.

“With scarce funding available, unless the Government is going to exponentially increase its support to the waste management industry, this looks like posing a significant hurdle when combined with the speed at which it will have to swing into place,” he states.

PAFA also gave a sobering reminder of the ‘state-of-the-market’ for recycled materials, quoting WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) report on the first year of Courtauld 2, which showed that, of the carbon reduction improvements recorded by retailers, more than 95% came from resource reduction and less than 5% from recycled content.

“This is only logical,” says Turner, “because saving resources in many cases translates to a commercial saving, whereas increasing recycled content can often result in an increase in cost.

“You tell me what is truly sustainable from the business point of view?”

Barry Turner says he cannot be optimistic that the scale and speed of change will bring any significant results. “Not without a concerted effort by the Government as well as industry. Some of the measures we asked for, such as proper enforcement of transfrontier shipment regulations, investigating ways to ensure quality standards are maintained, and reviewing the PRN system are being reviewed by DEFRA. But some of the more fundamental obstacles have not been addressed and, seemingly the present waste minister appears unwilling to meet the industry to address its concerns.

“On this basis, I can’t see that targets will be met. With no localised targets and no desire to change at council level, we seem to be doomed to fall at the first fence.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and may not be shared by this publication.

Barry Turner Barry Turner

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