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What’s behind the green door

The packaging waste targets have once again been hiked up to meet EC demands, yet a question mark still remains over whether the UK packaging waste system can sustain these rises in the long-term. Louise Hunt reports on the bigger recycling picture and looks to mainland Europe for some answers

There have been some significant developments since Packaging Today International last pulled on its industrial strength gloves to delve deep within the packaging waste regulations.

Last December the European Commission proposed that the packaging waste targets for the period between 2002-2006 could be anything from 60-75% recovery with overall recycling of 55-70% and material specific targets at 60% glass, 55% paper and board, 50% metals and 20% plastics.

Yet the news this April that Britain’s second largest compliance scheme Wastepack has failed to meet its 2001 targets by a shortfall of 240 000 tonnes casts serious doubt over the effectiveness of the current PRN system and its ability to climb above 60%.

This puts the UK under increasing pressure to address snags in the packaging waste system which are apparently holding it back from achieving the same results as many of its mainland counterparts. It also means that the days of boasting the cheapest packaging recycling system in Europe could well be over.

The pace has now been set with the UK targets for 2002. Their delayed introduction made this March gives industry the remainder of the year to recover just under 5M tonnes of packaging waste with targets at 59% recovery and 19% material specific recycling.

These targets are the result of a consultation process between government and the Advisory Committee on Packaging. An ACP Task Force report carried out last year has helped to argue down the 2002 targets from government’s original proposal of 61% recovery. This slightly softer approach was recommended as sufficient to keep the recycling momentum going while the UK is still unsure as to whether it has achieved last year’s figure of 56% and whether capacity to recover more than 60% does indeed exist in the UK.

There is not much time left to find out. If industry waits until the EC Directive targets become a final document – likely to be mid-2003 – and implementation takes a further 18 months, as was the case for the last set of EC targets, then the show may not be on the road until the end of 2004. This leaves only two years to make the quantum leap up to a potential 75% recovery.

The ACP and other industry bodies such as Incpen are pushing for an extension to 2008 to allow for development of more vital Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and collection schemes which can take up to 18 months to implement. At the same time, the House of Lords is carrying out an inquiry into the effects of the EC proposals on UK trade and industry.

But, as these are European rules and there are plenty of other member states who are on course to make the grades – including Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, there is no reason why the UK should get its own way this time.

If the UK is not to remain standing in the corner with the other delinquents – Spain and Italy – it looks like some serious long term re-thinking is required of its packaging waste system.

So far industry has managed to scrape through its early targets by relying on relatively inexpensive and easy to access commercial and industrial waste, along with the arguably escapist route of exporting waste. But if industry is to haul itself above the 60% mark it will have to get right back to basics with a monumental drive to recover far more household waste.

Of course, developing this much needed capacity cannot be achieved by industry alone. There appears to be a more pressing need than ever for government to implement a strong national infrastructure that drives a reliable and consistent working relationship between the packaging waste industry and local authority, as well as help to change cultural attitudes that are very much stuck in their ways.

The first step in this process began with the ACP Task Force study which, as part of assessing the overall capability of the current system, has shone a torch on some of its blockages. Ian Dent, chief executive of the Packaging Federation and a member of the Task Force, explains where these problem areas lie.

He begins with the laissez-faire mechanism adopted by the UK. Although celebrated for having so far kept costs far below those of other member states and provide an envied flexibility, he believes its fragmented nature has also hindered development of a national infrastructure that can sufficiently support growing demands on collection and sorting facilities and end markets. If recovering more household waste is the key to achieving EC targets then not being able to get to the front door really is a problem.

“The major reason we are not at the same recovery level as the other member states is because we do not have a well developed kerbside collection scheme.”

The report shows that it is likely that kerbside will make up the majority of collection initiatives as ‘bring’ schemes will not achieve the necessary recovery levels. “We’ve got about 40% of households now covered by a kerbside scheme but there needs to be up to 80%.”

Presently, local authority funding for collection and recycling schemes is as much of a lottery as anything else council related. “This is a serious problem for the whole system and it will affect not just packaging but how the UK is going to meet its objectives for waste strategy.

“The problem is pure economics – unless government tells local authority it must use some of its money for recycling it will be competing against hospitals, schools and police. It doesn’t take much to see that recycling is not exactly going to come high up on the priority list. There needs to be some sort of national driver behind recycling.”

Government will argue that it has, in fact, recently implemented such an initiative with its Waste Summit led by Margaret Beckett that has an allocated £140M to be bid for by local authorities. But before we all run out into the streets with our carefully separated packaging waste looking for little plastics boxes, this money is just as likely to go towards other ‘high profile’ causes such as fridge and computer dumping.

“I would imagine that they are now getting bombarded with all sorts of ‘nice to have’ initiatives – going off in all sorts of directions of ‘let’s have a communications programme and a waste minimisation’ activity. What we should be saying is ‘what do we need to have?'”

This is certainly a view held by Andrew Simmons, chief executive of plastics recycling body Recoup: “We welcome the announcement of this government fund that can be a major catalyst to achieve the step-change in local waste management practice required.

“However, the UK needs bold projects and project leaders to deliver this change at local level. Well-integrated, multi-material waste management systems are the way forward. These schemes need commitment at the highest level in local government. Local authorities that don’t have focus, drive and recycling champions will fall short. Piecemeal investment will not help the UK achieve its statutory requirements.”

Mr Simmons goes on to criticise the time-scale surrounding bids for a piece of the pie. “The fund application process must allow councils and contractors to develop and agree effective large-scale projects. The proposed application time-scale – only a few weeks – undermines the value of this fund.”

Instead, he believes local government should have access to a fund that commits finance over more than a single year to worthwhile projects. “We urge the Treasury to incentivise UK recycling by extending the fund for a further three years, while continuing to increase landfill tax.

“Our experience is that councils will not introduce or extend a recycling scheme on the basis of a single year of windfall funding. Let’s extend the fund and remove the obvious barrier to real progress.”

Now that councils have their own recycling legislation to worry about with the introduction of Statutory Targets on Local Authorities, in theory, there is more likelihood that kerbside schemes will be climbing the agenda hierarchy. Under the new rules, recycling rates must be doubled by the end of 2003 and nearly tripled by close of 2005. However, as targets are weight related it is good news for high weight waste – glass, newspapers and magazines and kitchen waste – but household paper packaging, metal cans and plastics packaging may still be left out in the cold, even though there will be a cost forfeit.

But why scramble for government handouts when money generated by PRNs is supposed to be financing collection and re-processing? Again the market-led system seems to be shooting itself in the foot.

“The problem is the PRN system works much better when there is an excess in demand because the prices tend to be much higher which gives more confidence so there is more money to invest in operational costs,” explains Mr Dent.

“The difficulty up to now is that there has been an excess supply situation, particularly as people have latched onto export markets. When you get into that situation all the PRNs can do is concentrate on operational costs.”

This is a problem as, since the system was activated in 1998, local authorities have been banking on a far more substantial flow of cash to pay for recycling initiatives. A lack of realisation that the PRN system was bolstering a situation that was already being subsidised by industry hasn’t helped. Nor has letting PRN revenue fund the entire waste stream collection – whether accidental or not says Mr Dent.

“The PRN system is fine. And I think when the current situation reverses then clearly there will be more funds flowing through. But I think to be honest this is where it comes back to national infrastructure – the PRN system will work still effectively at an operational level – not a capital investment level.”

This appears to be the crux of the infrastructure issue. Without certain revenue coming in from PRNs local authorities have been reluctant to invest into the additional capacity needed to bring the UK into the next EC stage. PRN prices have been going up since August but the anticipated surge has yet to occur. This will probably only amount to reprocessors having enough confidence that they can continue in business, adds Mr Dent.

Wastepack, evidently in need of reassessing its PRN strategy, commissioned an independent study to look at the extent to which PRN funding has caused real increases in packaging waste recycling from 1998-2001. The main conclusions are:

* An additional 250 000 tonnes of new reprocessing capacity has been brought on stream since 1998.

* This increment has cost approximately £1000 per tonne.

* If past rates of growth are projected forward it will take between 14 and 30 years, at a cost of £1.8bn, to meet a packaging directive target of 60% recovery.

The author argues that in its current format the PRN funding system cannot deliver the proposed 2006 targets unless a more proactive approach to recycling waste is adopted. The research also backs Mr Dent’s views that funding from business has mainly been used to support existing recycling activity, rather than increase capacity to fill the gap to meet increasing targets.

In response to the Wastepack situation, Mr Dent comments: “This is clearly a sign that without some form of national control there will be these problems. Wastepack’s failure should provide a watershed to the regime that we’ve had today and prompt a fundamental overhaul of the current system.”

It is possible that the way forward is to take a few notes from our continental counterparts. Along with Incpen and several other packaging organisations, Mr Dent is not adverse to the idea of one national compliance scheme or body as opposed to the 18 currently in operation in the UK. He points to the differences between UK and mainland Europe.

“The majority of Europe has a much simpler bureaucratic scheme. Instead of us having to measure packaging going back to its raw material constituency and trying to second guess whether it is going into packaging, the issue is when that packaging is actually placed on the market. This makes the whole system easier to understand and calculate.

“The other difference is that in general terms there is one big scheme that looks after the packaging waste and this seems to give them a more structured national infrastructure.”

The French EcoEmballage scheme is one such example. Here there is a collaborative effort between local authorities and the packaging industry. A set rate is given to local authority for recycling and if they recycle more they get a better rate to encourage best practice.

“Whereas local authorities in the UK are stuck in between all these different players so that they don’t have the same level of confidence to put facilities on the ground.”

Ian Wivell, head of business services for the German-British Chamber of Industry and Commerce explains the relative merits of the German Green Dot system.

DSD is the main compliance scheme, although there are other schemes that tend to operate in specialised areas such as pharmaceuticals.

After the German packaging ordnance in 1991 which declared the country was sending an unsustainable amount of waste to landfill, DSD developed the Green Dot system – now adopted in various forms by much of mainland Europe.

It works with a fixed license rate which packaging manufacturers and distributors (not including raw materials producers) pay to relieve themselves of their obligation to recycle packaging. In return they may use the Green Dot symbol on their packs to prove to consumers that packaging will be recycled.

Like the UK system, DSD will then subcontract reprocessing to other companies. Unlike the UK, the contract is not limited to the amount of PRNs a supplier can produce but rests on the amount of packaging being recycled.

This means that, if DSD brings in more license fees and has more money to spend, it can do that with existing suppliers, whereas UK contracts are typically more rigid.

The result for some packaging materials such as paper is recycling rates well above target, which is helping Germany reach for the 60-70% recovery mark already this year.

Consumers are fundamental to the success of the system. They are responsible for separating packaging with the Green Dot symbol from municipal waste into DSD funded kerbside bins.

This involvement in the packaging waste process produces a very high level of cultural awareness in recycling and environmental issues, says Mr Wivell. The fact that consumers know that they are effectively paying towards recycling through the Green Dot also impacts on purchasing decisions.

Not surprisingly, they are inclined to buy products with the least amount of sales packaging… because they are cheaper. “In Germany you will see far fewer products packed onto cardboard backing. For example, something like Sellotape will just come on a plastics wrapped roll. Consumers are more aware of optimised packaging and will also bring their own shopping bags rather than pay an extra price.”

This may be a depressing thought for packaging designers but it is obviously a plus for the environment if products aren’t compromised.

Nobody is saying that the DSD system is perfect. It has been hauled over the coals recently for monopolising tactics and so far has been significantly more expensive than that in the UK.

But it does seem able to strike a very fruitful balance by understanding human nature – if you put a financial incentive behind packaging recycling then suddenly consumers will open their doors. This is perhaps something to think about as the saga continues.