Angeli Mehta peels the lid off the commitment by Britain’s biggest supermarkets and brands to create a circular economy for plastics by 2025 and finds that huge barriers will need to be overcome
From coffee cups to tea bags, commitments on plastics have been coming thick and fast in response to public disquiet about marine litter. Last week, some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets made headlines by signup up to a pledge to cut plastic packaging waste.
The UK Plastic Pact, a collaboration between 68 retailers, brands, makers of packaging and waste and recycling companies, set a voluntary target for all plastics packaging to be either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
UK waste reduction charity WRAP, which is leading the initiative, says it is the first of a global network of such pacts, enabled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy initiative.
The announcement comes at a critical time, as China’s ban on imports of plastic and other waste begins to bite. The government is preparing new measures under a revised UK Resource and Waste strategy, as part of its 25-year environment plan. These could see companies paying more for the collection and recycling of the packaging waste they produce.
Defra is also consulting on a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles; and on banning the sale of plastic straws, cotton buds with plastic stems, and drink stirrers. The UK is the second-highest consumer in Europe of these items. It also has to consider the implications of the EU circular economy package, which was ratified by the EU Parliament (with UK support) last month.
The targets are not achievable, as things stand today
However, on close inspection of the pact, there’s no commitment by the brands that have signed up it to use less plastic packaging, or to eliminate all single-use plastic. Signatories say they will get rid of “unnecessary” or “problematic” single-use packaging through redesign and innovation, but how will “unnecessary” be defined?
That will be one of the first tasks of the collaboration, according to WRAP, which says it will have drawn up a list of items to focus on by autumn. One example could be the peel-off tamper strip on a drinks bottle, as alternative designs without a strip exist.
Stuart Foster, chief executive of plastics recycling charity RECOUP, which is one of the signatories of the pact, worries that “the targets are not achievable, as things stand today”. He adds: “They are ambitious, but it does need some real changes to allow them to be delivered.”
China's ban on imports of plastic is beginning to bite: (Credit: hiv360/Shutterstock)
Recycling infrastructure will be key. Foster points out that it took several years to get the economies of scale needed to make bottle recycling work. Ironically, China’s ban on imports may prove useful. Plastics also need to be recycled in a manner that maintains their value, as so much energy goes into producing them in the first place.
Local authorities complain they are left to foot most of the bill for collection and recycling. Under the UK’s Producer Responsibility Obligations, which were designed to make packaging producers pay for the cost of disposal, £111m was generated in 2013. Of this, just £37m went towards collection, compared with the £550m cost to local authorities.
Retailers say the system needs to change, because there’s no mechanism to direct funds to where they’re needed, like infrastructure. Moreover, it doesn’t encourage environmentally friendly packaging decisions, and it incentivises export of waste rather than domestic reprocessing.
I'd be concerned if Defra now took the view that the pact means there’s nothing left to be done
The British Retail Consortium says its members want to understand how and where the money sent to reprocessors is spent. However, retailers themselves have proved unwilling to reveal how much plastic packaging they use. And through their industry bodies they have been lobbying the government not to introduce elements of the EU Circular Economy Package that would, they say, make them responsible for the entire cost of products they place on the market. Under the UK’s current system, packaging producers pay far less than in the rest of Europe.
“We need to start from scratch,” says Dominic Hogg, chair of environmental consultants Eunomia. “It doesn’t work – and you can’t trust the data.”
Producers, he suggests, should pay for both provision of recycling services and the problem of dealing with packaging in residual waste, and litter. “Local authorities will have to accept that they’d only get money from producers if collection services met minimum standards with high quality materials, and the revenue used by producers to offset their fee.”
Hogg says he’d “be concerned if Defra now took the view that the pact means there’s nothing left to be done”. He argues that the targets should be enshrined in legislation. All the evidence on the efficacy of voluntary agreements, he says, suggests “they tend to work best when there is a credible threat of alternative policy coming in, in the event of the agreement not achieving what it sets out to”.
He’d hope to see one single piece of legislation covering both deposit scheme and no-deposit packaging: “Make sure the two work in tandem, so deposit scheme producers don’t pay twice and the non-deposit producer properly funds the collection services for non-deposit packaging.”
A British Retail consortium spokesperson said: “We strongly support the aims of the UK Plastics Pact. Defra is expected to consult on legislation in this area later this year and we will respond to this following discussion with members on the details. In the meantime, this voluntary agreement means that changes can start now.”
Low oil prices have made it difficult for new technologies to compete
At present we just don’t know how much plastics packaging is produced, or how much is recyclable, reusable or compostable. So how will we judge progress? WRAP says founder members will have to agree definitions and a measurement methodology, to enable WRAP to have a robust reporting process.
Nor do we have UK data on the average recycled content of plastic packaging. WRAP estimates it to be on average less than 10%. The Plastics Pact signatories aim to get to 30%. WRAP says one of the first priorities will be to overcome barriers to increasing the amount of recycled content used in new packaging. One problem has been economic: low oil prices have made it difficult for new technologies to compete.
Ioniqa has developled technology that enables the recycling of any PET plastic waste.
The current state of technology would suggest that for widely used and versatile plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate – used, for example, for drinks bottles) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene – used for food trays and milk bottles) at least, the figures could go higher. French petrochemical giant Total has just received approval for its recycled HDPE to be used in food packaging. It contains 50% post-consumer HDPE.
Last month, Unilever teamed up with Dutch start-up Ioniqa, whose technology allows the recycling of any kind of PET waste, potentially infinitely. (see Who’s bending the curve on reusing plastic) Ioniqa’s new plant will supply the world’s largest PET resin maker, Indorama, which in turn will produce the PET resin to be used in Unilever’s packaging. Unilever anticipates the recycled PET will be ready to use by autumn 2019.
Eunomia’s research shows that the UK’s take-away culture is a big source of plastics pollution. It estimates that this year plastic waste generated in the UK will reach 5.2m tonnes, up from 4.9m tonnes in 2014. Packaging accounts for two-thirds of that. A spokesperson for WRAP says “on the go” consumption is included in the targets, and that Pret A Manger and Pizza Hut are signed up to the pact as well as UKHospitality, newly formed after a merger of the British Hospitality Association and Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, and the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
WRAP points out that everyone has a role to play: “The initiative requires action from every ‘body, business and organisation’, including governments”. Legislation is one thing, but a shift in behaviour from citizens and business is urgently required.