The House of Commons Library has published a briefing paper on plastic waste in the UK ahead of potential legislative changes to come later in the year.
The paper first strives to establish the size of the problem, noting that there has been concern about whether the reported volumes are actually correct. Not only is the coverage of UK data on plastic waste questionable, but the packaging recycling rates reported by the government are also ‘not sufficiently robust’, according to a 2018 report by the National Audit Office. The report went on to state that its authors were concerned that the reported recycling rate for plastic packaging could be overstated, ‘although not by enough to undermine the achievement of the overall target.’
Current estimates place the amount of plastic used annually in the UK at around five million tonnes, nearly half of which is packaging.
The briefing further looks at the impacts of plastic waste on the environment and human health as well as at the benefits of plastic in packaging applications, before delving into the available legal frameworks for dealing with waste.
The report contained criticisms of the current plastic packing producer responsibility scheme. Under this scheme, Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) and Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) are issued by accredited businesses and provide the evidence for compliance with the scheme, although the National Audit Office has said that there are no checks on such compliance. It further stated that ‘despite it now being 20 years since the system was established, the Department does not know what value the system has added nor whether the Agency’s approach to tackling the risks of fraud and error is proportionate.’ It’s a criticism shared by the British Plastics Federation, which feels that the way the market for PRNs works has stagnated the UK plastics recycling industry and created a greater incentive for companies to seek PERNs, where plastic is exported overseas for recycling.
According to the briefing, the government under former Prime Minister Theresa May had a strategic ambition to “work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025”. This followed commitments to leave the environment in a better condition for the next generation, an “ambition” of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and a “target” of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042. It also refers to EU law, pointing to the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. This includes a recently agreed Single Use Plastic Directive which will ban specified items of single-use plastic. With the Brexit transition period having ended on 31 December, this will be transposed into UK law in 2021.
The briefing also notes there has been some concern about the environmental consequences of an increased use of plastic products during the Covid-19 pandemic and about the delay to environmental legislation. While the UK Government has produced guidance on the correct disposal of face masks and personal protective equipment, environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Greener UK have expressed concern about the delay to environmental legislation.
Several voluntary initiatives are referred to, including the Plastics Pact, the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) and the UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCPN), after which the briefing concludes with an overview of what various other countries are doing to address the issue and to reduce the volume of avoidable plastic waste.
The bottom line is, according to this briefing, that packaging manufacturers are anxious to get beyond the pandemic and to work towards a green recovery in order to move towards greater sustainability and a more circular economy.