According to a new report from Brunel University London and the University of Leeds, the current system of collecting and managing plastic packaging waste is strangling innovation and discouraging efforts to invest in green infrastructure to exploit technological change.
Significant changes are needed, the authors of the report write, in order to meet the ambition within the Resources and Waste Strategy to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2043. Recycling efforts are being stifled by regulatory and technological ‘lock-ins’, they argue.
Under the current system, local authorities in various places have been forced to tie themselves to contracts as long as 25 years if the costs of collecting and managing waste were to be anywhere near economically viable.
One visible effect has been an over-dependence on exporting waste to markets with questionable recycling policies.
Another is that implementing changes in the local infrastructure to take advantage of new technologies becomes very difficult because of the long contracts entered into with the waste management companies.
The researchers argue that a reduction in the cost burden on local authorities, through more equitable distribution of value in the system, can incentivise long-term investment but that regulatory and technological ‘locked-ins’ need to be confronted.
“Innovation in the waste and recycling industry is really swift, but our local authorities cannot take advantage under the current system,” said Dr Eleni Iacovidou, a lecturer in Environmental Management at Brunel, who led the study.
The report analysed the UK’s plastic packaging system in England using a new systems approach termed ‘Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery’ (CVORR), in which the need for collaboration between economists, engineers and environmental scientists, DEFRA, the waste management sector and other stakeholders is emphasised.
Report co-author, Andrew Brown, Professor of Economics at the University of Leeds, said: “In order to take advantage of huge long-term opportunities for value preservation and creation through plastic packaging recycling, change is required in the whole system, guided by the new CVORR framework.”
The report proposed new metrics for the government to use when monitoring and assessing their success against the 2050 target. The metrics developed correspond to four domains of value – environmental, economic, social and technical – enable a systemic assessment of the plastic packaging system, which is so much needed to bringing about change and monitoring that change.
The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and authored by Eleni Iacovidou, Norman Ebner, Bianca Orsi and Andrew Brown.