Is a nation's waste an industry's resource?

Written by: RWW | Published:

Ahead of the 2015 general election, our industry needs to be thinking about what it should expecting from those politicians who hold the levers of power. We need simple but effective changes that make good sense, not just for us as a sector, but for meeting our recycling targets as well, says Jonathan Short, founder and deputy chairman of ECO Plastics.

The current outlook for hitting the UK’s recycling targets is not good. 

England’s progress towards the EU target of recycling 50% of household waste by 2020 has slowed significantly; rising just 0.1% in the 12 months to June 2013 to reach 43.3%. In this context, the EC’s newest target of 70% by 2030 seems a long way off. Defra’s public unwillingness to undertake any major reforms in the waste sector due to funding cuts equally does not inspire confidence in this area.  

If we are serious about hitting these targets we need a dedicated educational campaign for consumers, fundamental changes to the regulatory system and a mandate for manufacturers to use recycled products. 

There is way too much focus on ‘push’ and not enough on ‘pull’ when recycling policies are considered. If we do this we can maximise our recycling capability, and turn a nation’s waste into a valuable resource that will form a significant part of a truly circular economy.

First and foremost, we need to shift our mindset. 

This thought dawned on me when preparing for my appearance in front of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee last month, as part of its inquiry into waste management. 

Outside the recycling industry, waste is not considered to be a resource. 

To parliamentarians and general consumers, waste is something we put in the conventional black bin or the recycling bin and forget about. Scant thought goes into what happens to it next. 

Most of the discussions centred on how government and industry can and should encourage people to dispose of their waste effectively and recycle more. Little emphasis was placed on why households should do so. 

I don’t believe we will achieve this until we change the way people perceive the items they throw away, and adapt the way we talk about ‘waste’ as a nation. 

To help bring about this kind of behavioural change, we need a crystal clear communications campaign to challenge consumer perceptions. 

This programme will need to actively demonstrate the monetary value that some discarded household items, such as plastic bottles, actually have. As part of this, we can show that what many people believe is ‘waste’, is actually a resource which can be sold, processed and used again. 

We then need to explain how the profits made from this process directly benefit households and communities. Furthermore, we must demonstrate that recycling is not just part of one’s civic duty to the environment; it is also providing a vital resource for UK recycling plants and manufacturers based in the UK. This generates growth, creates jobs, bolsters UK GDP, and increases tax revenue to the Treasury which can be invested in communities.

One way the government could easily finance a public awareness campaign is by using the VAT revenue collected as part of the single-use plastic bag charge. The government will collect almost £20m a year from this element of the charge. Even a fraction of that revenue would be sufficient for an effective campaign which ECO Plastics estimates would encourage a further £50m of plastic bottles collected per year and deliver a saving in landfill tax alone of £20m a year.

What also came out of the EFRA select committee inquiry was the urgent need to review the current regulatory landscape for recycling. 

Bugbear for British reprocessors

The Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system in particular has been the bugbear for British reprocessors for some time. Currently, plastic reprocessors can only claim a PRN credit based upon the input to the washing process or in extreme cases melted down.  

Losses of up to 30% of the original feedstock through the removal of dirt, moisture and other contamination can be expected during sorting and before the washing stage. 

Whereas exporters can claim the export version of a PRN, the PERN, on 100% of the tonnage by simply baling unprocessed material, usually contains contamination like waste paper, dirt, glass, liquid and organic residue.

Although the government believes they have taken some action to level the playing field by re-issuing GN01 guidance, they have in fact simply moved the words around. Contamination within bales has never qualified for PERNs, but without strict enforcement and clear set contamination thresholds, the system will continue to inadvertently incentivise export ahead of UK manufacturing, which risks undermining the growth of our homegrown reprocessing industry. The original intention of the producer responsibility legislation was to ensure that those businesses which created packaging waste shouldered some of the cost of the collection and recycling of that material; not to export this valuable resource at the expense of jobs and wealth creation. 

It is now time to change a system which is no longer fit for purpose. 

On a wider level, 

It is essential the government puts recycling, and the creation of a circular economy, at the centre of economic policy. Growing the UK’s domestic reprocessing industry should be a core policy objective of all the main political parties. While Defra’s responsibility is on meeting national recycling targets, greater commitment from other parts of government is also needed. There should be a minister in the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) who is responsible for ensuring that government recycling targets help deliver a truly circular economy which uses waste to secure investment that creates new recycling capacity and delivers new British jobs.

Although the government has announced there will be a BIS minister responsible for co-ordinating with Defra, this is far short of it committing to making it a core part of its business and economy agenda. Instead, the government should make clear that it intends to reverse its late 2013 statement to industry that it only intends to reform policy where it believes a market failure has taken place and instead commit to proactively delivering fundamental reforms to the market place.

Clear leadership, regulatory change and commitment are all critical to the success of the recycling industry in this country. If we do not raise our game in this respect not only will we fail to reach our legally binding recycling targets, but we will also lose a valuable opportunity to bolster our own manufacturing industry and the opportunity we have of creating a sustainable, circular economy.

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