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Plastic packaging waste has become a key consumer concern. In the UK, over 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging enter the consumer market each year. Much of this is used in the food sector because plastic packaging is cheap, light to transport, hygienic, and can be used to extend the product’s shelf-life. In the UK around 46% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, mostly through local authority collections. However several issues with the current systems of plastics recycling persist.

For example there is wide variation in plastic materials currently in the market. Some widely used plastics are non-recyclable, while others complicate the recycling process. There is also variation between local authority collections, making it difficult for consumers to distinguish between what is recyclable and what isn’t, and difficult for manufacturers to label their products. The poor economics of recycling further complicate systems, often leading to the export of collected materials. Finally the market for reusing recycled materials is limited, as often new (virgin) plastic is cheaper to make and of higher quality than recycled plastic.

As part of the Resources and Waste Strategy for England (December 2018), the UK Government proposed a suite of measures to radically reform waste management. This aligns with the aim of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. Between February and May 2019, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and HM Treasury sought consultation on four proposals designed to increase the amount of plastic that is recycled and reduce plastic waste. The proposals aim to ‘design out’ unnecessary and difficult to recycle packaging from the recycling stream and make it easier for households and businesses to recycle their packaging waste.

A proposal for consistency in recycling collections in England, would have each local authority collect the same core set of materials for recycling and have weekly food waste collections. According to estimates, between 2018 and 2025 a national collection scheme could yield a total of £478 million more from the sale of recovered materials and 8 million tonnes of organic fertiliser to the agri-food sector. This would follow in the example of Wales, which is currently ranked fourth globally for municipal recycling.

A proposal to reform the packaging producer responsibility system would make producers/manufacturers responsible for the cost of managing their products at the end-of-life stage. They would pay ‘full net recovery’ costs which could take the form of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fee applied on packaging materials. Currently 90% of the cost of recyclable waste management is absorbed by local authorities. This proposal could increase competitiveness of the UK recycling system and has some support from the industry.

A proposal for a plastic packaging tax would apply to any business that produces or imports plastic packaging of less than 30% recycled content. This measure would provide a clear economic incentive for businesses and create greater demand for the material. The measure could also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production of virgin plastic. And there is evidence that the measure could be popular with consumers.

Finally a proposal to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would introduce a surcharge (‘deposit’) on purchased drinks containers that is refunded to the consumer when the item is returned for recycling. The scheme could include PET and HDPE plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans, and glass bottles, with the deposit being between 10p and 20p.  These are all highly recyclable materials that are not currently captured in existing collections. It is thought that around 40% of PET bottles sold in the UK do not reach recycling centres, with 700,000 plastic bottles being littered every day. Currently, only 49% of local authorities provide facilities for on-the-go recycling and these are typically subject to high levels of contamination. DRS schemes have had varying rates of success across Europe. In Nordic countries the model achieves high recycling rates. Other countries such as France and Belgium have rejected such initiatives, due to concerns of inefficiency.

This POSTbrief reviews these four proposals and considers their limitations.

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