Packaging needs a traffic-light system

Written by: Anna Cawley | Published:

Though it may be a dangerous subject to start with, I want to focus on the only thing the nation appears to agree on concerning Brexit.

We don’t know how to sort out fact from fiction and feel that politicians have put party politics before the good of the nation.

Research commissioned by the MPMA last month showed that almost 70% of consumers believe retailers aren’t doing enough to present the recycling attributes of the products they sell. The vast majority, 83%, also believe retailers should make it crystal clear whether packaging can be recycled or not.

These are lessons to bear in mind when we think about the Resources and Waste Strategy, because communication and working together need to be at the heart of any plans if they are going to succeed.

For a resource collection service to be sustainable it must meet three criteria of collectability, sortability and commerciality. How these three factors work together explains the current level of recycling and waste management in the world; for example, where less than 10% of plastic ever produced is recycled but 90% of steel is.

The way these factors work together can be changed by applying the levers of information, incentives and infrastructure, and the Resources and Waste Strategy is designed to employ all of them. However, the role of communication and cross-party agreement needs more emphasis in the strategy.

Resource management companies like Cawleys are on the front line of recycling and reprocessing. The most important way in which people can help us to increase recycling rates and reduce waste, and help apply those levers, is to ensure that materials are clean and well segregated when they are thrown away.

We were the first company in the UK to offer a commercial food waste collection service to anaerobic digestion (AD) in the retail sector in 2008 for Waitrose and continue to beat the drum for food waste collection and segregation. Food must be removed from other waste streams to improve the quality and therefore commerciality of all recyclate, which is why on-pack labelling and communication are so vital to improve recycling and drive the circular economy.

It has taken years for the current On-Pack Recycling Label scheme to enter into the national psyche, but even so, it still isn’t sufficient. Consumers are currently not being given the information to help them make an informed decision at any stage in the cycle: not at the point of purchase, at the point of disposal, or in the marketing material.

Consumers can’t begin to play their part if they are not presented with the right information or the right corresponding recycling systems and home, at work or in public spaces. But an on-pack traffic-light recycling scheme does have potential.

Some possible traffic-light measures for recycling could include: the number of materials the packaging is made from; overall proportion of packaging material which is recycled; overall percentage of recycled content; or if the packaging should be composted, recycled, used for fuel or is waste.

Did use of the phrase ‘use for fuel’ jump out at you? At least it’s clear, and so too is the word waste, given its true meaning in this context: that nothing further can be done with this material; it will hereafter be lost to the earth.

There are some interesting measures being explored that could be used instead of these blunt terms. ‘Specific Eco Benefit Indictor’ is one measure used in a Swiss study looking at values compared with a ‘reference scenario’ such as incineration. ‘Environmental burden points’ is another, which looks at total lifecycle including the recycling potential of the material. All options need to be discussed and agreed by an impartial waste ombudsman, such as WRAP.

Compostables is another area that deserves immediate attention. It’s brilliant that we have created compostable alternatives to some very environmentally damaging packaging items such as six-pack rings, but from a waste collection perspective they can be problematic.

Compostables contaminate other waste streams if they appear in any quantity, which therefore reduces the quality and commerciality of the other resource streams. The material will therefore need its own specific infrastructure and compost solution, a fact which needs to be conveyed to the general public and the manufacturing market quickly and clearly as it is an obvious area for designers to explore.

Our industry can cope with it and deal with it if the material is disposed of correctly, which again comes back to clear, unequivocal communication of facts on packaging. None of this is easy, but it is hopefully easier than Brexit. And if we begin with a cross-party approach, it will give us a better chance of success not just for the good of the UK or Europe, but for the whole Earth.

Anna Cawley is director of customer service at waste management company Cawleys

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