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Plastic Bottles…and more insights from the Environmental Audit Committee

2nd March 2018

Liz Wood (PIEMA, PhD)

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) released their first report “Plastic Bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide” in December 2017. The report set out a number of recommendations aimed at tackling the issue of plastics, especially single-use plastics and packaging in the UK.

In February 2018 the Government response to these recommendations was published. You can view the full report here.

 What are they key themes of the EAC’s recommendations, the Government response, and why does this matter?

The main reason this publication is potentially important is due to the insights it provides into the shape and content of the Resource and Waste Strategy which is expected to be published by the Government toward the end of 2018. The Resources and Waste strategy will set out the Government approach to reducing waste, promoting markets for secondary (recycled) materials and incentivising changes to product design and end of life disposal. The report and response are also timely, given recent media attention which has focused on single-use plastics, particularly as contaminants to the marine environment.

Furthermore, the recommendations and response hint to changes in the Packaging Producer Responsibility Scheme.

What were some of the key recommendations made by the EAC?:

“[recommend that Government] adapts a producer responsibility compliance fee structure that stimulates the use of recycled plastic, rewards design for recyclability, and increases costs for packaging that is difficult to recycle or reuse”.

“lower the de minimis packaging handling threshold from 50 tonnes to 1 tonne.”

“support industry calls for greater transparency over how recovery note revenue is spent and recommend the Government to require all waste reprocesses to report detail information on actions funded by recovery notes. Waste reprocessors should be held accountable to the EA for exactly how they spend packaging recovery revenue, especially if they fund export considerably more than domestic reprocessing.”

“in its reform of the PRO the Government phases in a mandated minimum 50% Rpet content for the production of new plastic bottles by 2023 at the latest. This would create a UK market for recycling plastic, which struggles against low oil prices which make new plastic cheaper.”

What are the potential implications of the above recommendations?

The recommendations repeatedly mention changes to influence product design, hinting of cost implications for products which are difficult to recycle or reuse. The UK is not the first EU country to look at this: France recently introduced changes to its producer responsibility obligations to reflect recyclability and recycled content. Read more in our story here. The requirement for a minimum recycled content in new plastic bottles is perhaps a hint toward enhanced requirements for packaging producers to incorporate secondary materials.

Reducing the deminimus would have a large impact on more businesses, currently only producers with a turnover in excess of £2 million and who handle over 50 tonnes of packaging are obligated under the regulations, this would potentially increase dramatically with changes to thresholds. It might also benefit some larger producers slightly, by sharing the burden of funding recycling. One proposal which has been suggested is a “micro producer” option for companies with a turnover of £1-2 million. Rather than requiring evidence based submissions and obligations covering, it would likely be an annual fee which is the same regardless of producer size. A recent report has suggested this would be approximately £230 including an EA fee which is estimated to generate £20m and £3m for the Environment Agency, to cover increased administration costs.

The promotion (and increased funding for) reprocessing of materials in the UK is perhaps unsurprising given that avenues for the export of plastic in particular are decreasing. Following the ban on exports to China, Vietnam have also reviewed their permitting policy for importers. Increasing domestic reprocessing will reduce reliance on the export of waste, but it will also require significant investment in the UK recycling industry. It is currently unclear where such investment would come from, with the potential for those obligated under the producer responsibility regulations picking up increased costs in future.

The Government response:

The Resource and Waste Strategy will build on the four point plan announced by the Environment Secretary for tackling plastic waste:

  • At the production stage, we will encourage producers to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products and rationalise the number of different types of plastic in use;
  • At the consumption stage, we will reduce the amount of plastic in circulation through reducing demand for single-use plastic;
  • At the end of use stage, we will make it easier for people to recycle.
  • At the end of life / waste management stage, we will improve the rate of recycling

“We will look at how we can better incentivise producers to manage resources more efficiently through changes to our producer responsibility schemes”.

“exploring changes to the packaging producer responsibility obligations. This will look at all aspects of the regime, including mechanisms to incentivise better design, encourage the use of recycled material and provide greater transparency in producer funding”

What next?

We await the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy during 2018. As always, we will endeavour to keep you informed of any updates.