Pafa, the UK plastic packaging industry trade body, has called on senior Defra ministers to recognise that the proposal for packaging recycling targets has failed to address the problems endemic in UK waste policy that will prevent plastic recycling targets from being met.
At a Parliamentary Reception in the House of Commons on 16 May, hosted by John Pugh MP, senior members of the industry gathered to lend their weight to a growing lobby for a change in approach. They met around 30 parliamentarians including shadow ministers and constituency MPs.
In addition, major brand owners and retailers attending included Marks and Spencer, Boots, B&Q, Nestle and Muller.
The industry group included senior leaders from Pafa, Plastics Europe and the British Plastics Federation (BPF). As part of the ‘2020 Challenge', they have been engaged in a dialogue with stakeholders and Defra aimed at setting out a roadmap to achieve the diversion of plastic from landfill and to improve recycling rates over a 10 year period. Progress is due to be reported this summer.
Barry Turner, Pafa chief executive, said: “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.
Industry wary of engagement
“I am not alone in being amazed that any government department can on the one hand 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 which 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,” said Turner.
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,” added Turner.
“All this when industry itself is calling long and hard for moves which would beneficially recover the enormous resource value in plastics. This indicates that, in England, waste policy lacks any joined up thinking and is in complete muddle.”
Pafa believes that to achieve the required increase in recycling will require substantial volumes of plastic pots, tubs, trays and film to be collected as well as more plastic bottles. This will require those local councils that are not already offering the service to do so and even those that are to significantly improve their collection rates of plastic.
No local authority plans for plastic recycling
But Turner is sceptical that councils will offer an improved plastics collection service when they have no plastic 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 the heavier materials to meet their overall target. Pafa says this is borne out by a recent survey of the top 30 councils which revealed that none of those responding had any plans to change what they were doing in relation to the collection of plastic for recycling despite the fact that none of them were meeting their targets.
Turner said: “Even if we can find a way past this major obstacle, 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 plastic 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 Lord Taylor at a recent Recoup event, 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 the DEFRA minister is right, PAFA says the current infrastructure could not cope with any significant increase in plastic waste of all types.
“Many MRFs (Municipal Recycling Facilities) are simply not equipped to sort the many plastic products in use at present – most MRFs were designed to separate out plastic bottles not pots, tubs, trays and films,” said Turner. “What infrastructure that 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 Government and all of the other stakeholders to address this issue systematically over a ten year period “to avoid potential chaos” but, according to Turner, 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.”
Pafa also gave a sobering reminder of the ‘state-of-the-market' for recycled materials quoting Wrap's report on the first year of Courtauld 2 which showed that of the carbon reduction improvements recorded by retailers over 95 % came from resource reduction and less than 5% from recycled content. “This is only logical,” said 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?”
Turner said he cannot be optimistic that the scale and speed of change will bring any significant results. “Not without a concerted effort by Government as well as industry,” he explained. “Some of the measures we asked for such as proper enforcement of trans-frontier shipment regulations, investigating ways to ensure quality standards are maintained and reviewing the way the PRN system works 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. I go back to the fact that of the top 30 performing councils rated according to collection – in spite of the fact that the vast majority are falling well short of the target – with no localised targets and no desire to change at council level, we seem to be doomed to fall at the first fence.”