There are no easy answers to the fight against plastic

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

With Defra's announcement of a deposit return scheme (DRS) in England and the existing packaging recovery note system subject to a National Audit Office review, there seems to be no end to the raging plastics waste debate.

Plastics recycling versus producer responsibility: there’s a two-horse race at the moment inside policy circles, with both agendas getting plenty of airtime in the lead up to the publication of Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy.

Of course, both priorities complement each other – curbing the detrimental effects of single-use plastics requires tougher action to make producers more accountable for the type of packaging they place on the market, and arguably a compliance fee system that stimulates the use of recycled plastic.

Last month, Defra’s Resources Minister Thérèse Coffey reiterated during a House of Commons debate that a deposit return scheme (DRS) was “being considered very carefully”.

She was responding to a barrage of questions on plastic waste and litter, with many MPs pressing her to confirm whether or not the government intends to introduce such a scheme.

She remained non-committal, not wanting to spoil the big announcement, but did go so far as to suggest that while there was appetite for a DRS, the variation of systems operating across Europe meant that it was important to find the right scheme for England.

The minister was then asked if she had given up something plastic for Lent. She replied that she had pledged to carry a water bottle around in her handbag. Just as well, considering that 93% of bottled water brands contain microplastics, according to a recent World Health Organization study.

Taking things a step further, Coffey added: “I have had to sacrifice my Marmite in the Tea Room because it is only sold in plastic sachets.” Er, public procurement of unnecessary disposable items surely counts as low-hanging fruit that should have been tackled long ago? I guess there’s still scope for improvement there.

Cause and effect

But to get back to the issue of producer responsibility reform and why the government is considering this so carefully. There is growing concern within certain industry quarters that a DRS will undermine local authority recycling efforts.

If plastic bottles are being diverted to reverse vending machines or taken back to point of sale, then that potentially leaves significant less volume going through household kerbside collections.

On one level it could be argued that’s good as it helps facilitate a more circular flow of materials, and potentially enables producers to scale up closed-loop recycling systems.

But on another level – and this is a very real concern – councils could see their incomes falling from reduced recyclate tonnages. Given that local authority spend on waste collection has been pretty much stripped to the bone over the past seven years due to austerity pressures, this could be the final nail in the coffin.

It’s such a delicate balancing act. Any policy intervention that could impact already stretched frontline services needs to be offset with a change in strategy – whether that’s a review of funding, recycling targets or even statutory responsibilities.

The danger with any reform is that the focus is narrow instead of expansive, and the approach taken piecemeal instead of absolute. Again, it comes back to the need for ‘systems thinking’ – something the government hasn’t traditionally been too hot on.

PRN under scrutiny

Meanwhile, news that the National Audit Office (NAO) is to conduct a review of packaging recycling obligations, the PRN system, is the latest development on the road to reform for this often criticised scheme.

Unlike the rest of Europe, which operate fee-based models, the UK’s PRN system is unique in that it’s a market-based scheme. So far it has benefited producers, offering them a low-cost way of demonstrating compliance. But its lack of transparency leaves it open to fraud, and the revenue generated by it hasn’t necessarily flowed in the way it should.

At the time of writing, a series of workshops are being held across England with compliance schemes, reprocessors, packaging firms, local authorities and resource managers to help shape future PRN policy.

One proposal being discussed is the establishment of a new PRN fund, the proceeds of which would be distributed by an independent body to achieve desired outcomes such as supporting more investment in collection infrastructure. This means that more money should effectively trickle down to councils to help them with costs.

As you can see, there’s a pattern emerging here with both DRS and PRN, and the future ability of local authorities to deliver recycling services that will be fit for purpose in the future. It’s a fascinating time to be in waste politics, and all fingers are crossed. If the industry fails to get what it needs, well it certainly won’t be for want of trying.

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