Anybody with half an eye on the UK’s tortuous progress – I use the word in the loosest possible sense – towards departing the European Union would be surprised, if not amazed, to find a civil servant or minister engaged in anything beyond the Government’s hapless navigation through the Brexit process. It is, therefore, testament to the gravity and urgency of the issue of plastic waste, and the degree of public concern the issue provokes, that amid the unprecedented political turmoil and mountainous legislative backlog created by Brexit, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) this week launched three consultations, representing the initial phase of its ‘Resources & Waste’ strategy.
The three consultations relate, respectively, to the reform and expansion of extended producer responsibility regulations; measures to increase consistency in the materials collected for recycling by local authorities and the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks cans and plastic and glass bottles, covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Also this week, the UK Government’s Treasury department has launched a consultation on its proposed tax on packaging that does not meet a set minimum threshold of recycled content, scheduled to take effect from April 2022. The consultation will seek feedback on the Government’s initial proposal of a threshold of 30% recycled content.
The Government has an unusually large number of consultations pending, which prompted a group of 32 trade associations to write to Environment Secretary Michael Gove earlier this month, urging planned consultations be placed « on pause » until current uncertainties over Brexit are settled. Food and drinks businesses are, the letter stated, « totally focused » on mitigating the « catastrophic impact » of a no-deal Brexit.
Having launched his Resources & Waste strategy with considerable fanfare in December, Gove was clearly reluctant to see its initial phase delayed unduly, even though government resources are every bit as stretched at the moment. While a number of other Defra consultations have been put on hold, the three relating to waste and recycling have only been extended so they now close on 13 May rather than in April. Gove has also intimated officials will look into whether the Department of Health’s consultation on the promotion of HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) might also be extended.
Among the bones of contention likely to be aired during the consultations is the scope of the DRS. A choice has clearly been set out between an ‘all-in’ scheme which would cover all containers, or one that focuses on the smaller containers used in the ‘on-the-go’ sector.
In their immediate responses to the launch of the consultations this week, the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK supermarkets, have backed different approaches. While applying a returnable deposit to the largest number of containers possible appears compelling in terms of maximising the proportion of packaging being recovered for recycling, if a comprehensive DRS model were adopted, there would be an impact on the economies of kerbside collection for local authorities.
« We need a targeted Deposit Return Scheme, working across the UK, that complements kerbside recovery, » the BRC stated. « The best way is by focusing on cans and plastic bottles consumed outside the home, to decrease the chances of them littering our streets or ending up in the ocean. Targeting on-the-go consumption avoids undermining existing household collection schemes, taking away a key source of revenues for local councils, as well as making life more difficult for households who can currently recycle these items from the comfort of their home. »
However, the BSDA said it supports the introduction of a nationwide DRS for all beverage containers, as its assessment « suggests this is the best way to increase recycling levels and tackle litter ».
The UK Government’s strategy also reflects a determination to optimise the UK’s extended producer responsibility ?(EPR) legislation, whereby the costs of managing packaging waste are met by the businesses initially creating the packaging. While EPR measures have been in place since 1997, they currently meet only 10% of the net costs. The plan is to reform and expand EPR so it meets the full net costs of managing packaging waste.
In a period of such bitter political division, there appears to be relatively broad support for the new measures to tackle packaging waste and boost recycling, underlined by an endorsement of the Resources & Waste strategy in a recent report from cross-party think tank Policy Connect.
Policy Connect engages in key public policy debates through the work of All-Party Parliamentary Groups, forums and commissions, which are informal groups of Members of both Houses of Parliament with a common interest in particular issues, and through collaboration with the public, private and third sectors.
The Achieving Zero Waste Exports report welcomes the recognition by Michael Gove that the UK can no longer rely on shipping plastic waste abroad. It describes the RWS as « an ambitious blueprint », and sets out 18 recommendations to « build on the direction of travel set by the strategy, seeking to stretch its ambition for plastic waste ».
Of concern to drinks companies in the UK and elsewhere is that the supply of recycled plastic (rPET) is sufficient to meet targets companies are now setting themselves for the use of recycled content in packaging. The prospect of a tax from 2022 on packaging containing less than 30% recycled content makes the supply issue even more crucial. With this in mind, the Policy Connect report recommends a variable threshold.
« The Treasury should set the percentage of recycled content target for their proposed tax at different levels for different packaging formats, depending on the availability of recycled material, » the report states. « The Treasury should devise a protocol for periodically revising these target percentages upwards as recycling improves. »
While the UK ponders new waste and recycling legislation, it was reported last month that the Indonesian island of Bali is planning to introduce a US$10 tourist tax levied on each of the island’s 5.7m visitors annually, to raise funds to address plastic waste pollution on its beaches and in its waters. Last month also saw the launch of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), an industry coalition that aims to bring together companies from along the plastics value chain, including oil and chemical producers and consumer goods firms. Backed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the AEPW plans to invest US$1.5 bn over the next five years to « help end plastic waste in the environment », developing and bringing to scale « solutions that will minimise and manage plastic waste » and « helping to enable a circular economy ».
However, the initiative drew immediate and harsh criticism from environmental pressure group Greenpeace, which described the coalition as « a desperate attempt from corporate polluters to maintain the status quo on plastics ».
While FMCG giant Procter & Gamble is a founding member, as yet no drinks firms or food producers have joined, though an AEPW spokesperson told just-drinks: « There are discussions with several companies in the food and beverage sectors about joining the Alliance. » By contrast, a number of major drinks producers, including Nestle, Danone, the Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo, were prominent founding signatories last October to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a multi-stakeholder initiative led by environmental campaign group the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to eliminate plastic pollution at its source.
Although the AEPW’s membership so far only includes companies, the Alliance spokesperson stressed that taking a « multi-stakeholder approach » would be « essential » to its work. « We continue to talk with not only companies from throughout our value chain, but with NGOs, governments, multilateral institutions and others about ways to combine our efforts for greater impact. »
The Alliance spokesperson also appeared to suggest a global NGO could become a strategic partner, stating: « The World Business Council on Sustainable Development is a strategic partner. Circulate Capital is also a strategic partner. There are ongoing discussions with global NGOs and we hope to be able to share more in the near future. »