As fresh statistics confirm UK remains well short of recycling targets, latest flurry of consultations aims to flesh out plans to overhaul UK waste and recycling regime
The government has today launched much-anticipated new proposals to revolutionise the UK's approach to waste and recycling and drive the development of a circular economy through the introduction of new plastic taxes, a more standardised approach to waste management, and a tougher rules for producers of packaging.
Defra has today published three new consultations that flesh out proposals to overhaul the UK's approach to waste management, which were first announced late last year as part of the government's new Resources and Waste Strategy. The consultations set out plans to make packaging producers pay the full cost of dealing with their waste, introduce a consistent set of materials collected across England from households for recycling, introduce a tax on plastic packaging, and launch a national Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for cans and bottles.
A group of trade bodies from across the food, drink, packaging, and farming sector had recently written to Defra calling for a delay to the department's planned consultations on the grounds they are currently overwhelmed with Brexit planning and would struggle to fully engage with the crucial proposals.
But the government today proceeded with the launch of the consultations as planned, confirming that interested parties now have 12 weeks to respond to the proposals. It added that it intends to incorporate the finalised measures in the upcoming Environment Bill, which is scheduled to be introduced "early in the second session of Parliament".
Taken as a whole the proposals are designed to cut waste levels, drive investment in domestic recycling infrastructure, trigger new circular economy business models and packaging innovation, and boost recycling rates, which have largely flatlined in England for the past five years.
The government released the latest waste statistics for the UK last week, confirming that the UK recycling rate for waste from households increased only marginally in 2017, climbing from 45.2 per cent to 45.7 per cent. The data suggests the UK is badly off-track to meet an EU target to ensure half of all household waste is recycled by 2020, raising the prospect of controversial infringement action if the UK moves into a transition period with the EU post-Brexit.
Specifically, the proposals will seek to impose more of the cost of waste management on the packaging producers and plastic manufacturers who contribute to a large proportion of household waste, providing them with an increased financial incentive to cut waste levels and improve the recyclability of their products.
Under the plans, the government would extend the existing Producer Responsibility regime to ensure the cost of packing recycling borne by packaging producers rises from 10 per cent currently to 100 per cent - a move the government estimates could increase costs for packaging producers and retailers by between £800m and £1bn a year, but will also provide a major boost to UK recycling capacity.
Defra also confirmed the government will in the future explore strengthening extended producer responsibility schemes for items that can be harder or more costly to recycle, with a view to improving existing schemes for cars, electrical goods and batteries, and potentially introducing new schemes for textiles, fishing gear, vehicle tyres, certain materials from construction and demolition, and bulky waste such as mattresses, furniture, and carpets.
Meanwhile, the government has again confirmed plans to introduce a new plastic tax from April 2022 that would cover the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content. Today's consultation is seeking views on how the tax should work, which packaging and businesses should be covered and how the tax should be designed.
At the same time the government has set out how it is seeking to standardise waste and recycling properties across different local authorities - an approach experts agree is likely to boost public understanding of recycling and boost economies of scale across the sector. The plan would see all local authorities required to introduce separate food waste recycling and meet minimum standards for the materials they have to recycle. The consultation will seek to establish which widely-recyclable material should be included, such as plastic bottles and plastic pots, tubs and trays, glass packaging, paper and card, and metal packaging.
The proposals are set to be further supported by a new national Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for drinks bottles and cans with the government confirming today it is considering two options for the new initiative. The first option, known as the 'all-in' model, would see the scheme cover virtually all drinks beverages packaging placed on the market, irrespective of size. The second option, dubbed the 'on-the-go' model, would restrict the scheme to drinks containers that are less than 750ml in size and sold in single format containers.
The government said it is optimistic the scheme can drastically increase recycling rates for drinks containers, which are one of the most commonly littered form of packaging. Defra today cited evidence from similar schemes in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden where return rates for the packaging covered by DRS have hit 90 per cent, 92 per cent, 98 per cent, 92 per cent, and 85 per cent respectively.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the government was "committed to going further and faster to reduce, reuse, recycle and cut waste".
"Through our plans we will introduce a world-leading tax to boost recycled content in plastic packaging, make producers foot the bill for handling their packaging waste, and end the confusion over household recycling," he said. "We are committed to cementing our place as a world leader in resource efficiency, so we can be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it."
The plans are also backed by Chancellor Philip Hammond who said there was an urgent need for the government to take action to tackle plastic waste.
"Plastic packaging makes up two-thirds of all the plastic waste that pollutes this country and wreaks havoc on our environment," he said. "It's our responsibility to do something about it and that's why we will introduce a new tax on the producers of plastic packaging that don't use enough recycled material. This action, coupled with the other measures we are bringing in, will help drive up recycling, cut the amount of new plastic being used and protect our environment for future generations."
The proposals received a cautious welcome from waste industry groups and environmental campaigners.
Pat Jennings, head of policy and communications at waste management body CIWM said the consultations "open up the opportunity to fundamentally change our approach to packaging recycling".
"The proposals will ensure that the whole supply chain is engaged in achieving this objective, with producers being required to adequately fund the recovery and recycling of their packaging and local authorities tasked with ensuring that collection services are consistent and achieve the quality needed to put valuable materials back into the market," she added. "With additional market support for secondary plastics through the plastics tax and the opportunity to explore how a Deposit Return Scheme could complement the other proposals and help tackle litter, the package of measures has the potential to reboot recycling and provide valuable learning on how to improve our approach to other waste streams in the future."
David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, similarly welcomed the new proposals and predicted that they should help drive much greater co-operation between business across the lifecycle of materials. But he also warned the government's proposed policy changes needed to integrate together if they were to deliver on promised cost savings and waste reduction.
"The more harmonised the entire system can become, from start to finish, the clearer and easier recycling will be for consumers," he said. "Underpinning the entire Resources and Waste strategy is a demand for better coordination between all of those involved in the production and management of waste - from product-design to retail, consumption, collection and recycling or reuse. The strategy will empower businesses across the value chain to work together, helping consumers to make sustainable choices regarding the things they buy and throw away."
He added that the proposal for extended producer responsibility was at the centre of the planned reforms. "If implemented correctly, we believe full net cost recovery producer responsibility could provide better funding for council and commercial waste collection and sorting services, and help with the cost of transition towards new systems," he said. "It should also lead to greater harmonisation of services, which makes life easier for consumers. Making producers more responsible for the cost and collection of products and packaging would put Britain back among the leading countries in Europe for attaining higher recycling rates and driving out waste."
However, environmental groups offered a more cautious take on whether the new plans would deliver on their considerable promise. Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth plastic campaigner, said the proposals were "welcome steps forward", but argued "bigger strides are needed" including firmer waste and recycling targets and a mechanism for ratcheting plastic taxes upwards over time.
"A radical overhaul of waste strategy is urgently needed to deal with our waste crisis - but this must include bold targets to substantially cut the waste that squanders precious resources, blights our environment and harms our wildlife," he said. "A plastic tax should give firms a real incentive to use more recycled plastic in their products, leading to less waste and less pollution. But to be truly effective the tax must be regularly revised to periodically increase the proportion of recycled material that manufacturers use."
Greenpeace UK political adviser Sam Chetan-Welsh similarly called for new binding targets to be included in the government's Environment Bill - something Gove has hinted he is keen to see, despite reported opposition from the Treasury - and for the government to back the more ambitious 'all-in' plans for its proposed DRS.
"The good thing about the government plan is that it tries to attack our plastic problem from multiple sides, from forcing producers to take responsibility for their own waste to simplifying and boosting recycling through a deposit-return scheme," Chetan-Welsh said. "A 'catch-all' deposit-return scheme could be a turning point in Britain's efforts to curb plastic pollution, but it's crucial that ministers get it right. A half-baked scheme limited to smaller bottles will simply confuse customers and fail to capture millions of larger plastic containers, many of which could still end up buried in landfills, burnt in incinerators, or polluting our oceans. If Michael Gove is serious about tackling plastic waste, a fully-comprehensive deposit-return scheme for drink containers of all sizes and materials is the way to go."
However, reports suggest a number of retailers are arguing against the introduction of a wide-ranging DRS scheme amid fears allowing larger bottles to be recycled through a DRS would undermine existing domestic recycling services.
Suez's Palmer-Jones said there was a case for focusing a DRS on 'on-the-go' packaging, but also advised that any DRS needed to be properly integrated with an effectvie producer responsibility scheme.
"Deposit return schemes are a useful component of a circular economy, but to make a lasting impact they must sit within a wider Extended Producer Responsibility regime which drives change at the design stage for products and which properly funds recycling systems," he said. "Well-designed deposit return schemes, underpinned by producer responsibility, should consign a throw-away culture to the bin."
He added that packaging producers should bear the full cost of what they place onto the market which may include the cost of operating a deposit return scheme, alongside existing council recycling systems. "Manufacturers with poorly designed products will end up paying the price if their products cannot be recycled," he said. "Freeloading on the efforts of others who make their packaging easier to recycle will be tougher."
But he also suggested that the company's evidence showed DRS had the greatest impact when targeted at the packaging of products consumed on-the-go. "A selective deposit scheme needs to be carefully designed to prevent manufacturers creating new sizes, or introducing new materials that are difficult to recycle, simply to avoid having to participate in the deposit return scheme," he advised. "A deposit return system for on-the-go packaging complements existing household recycling systems, which are very cost-effective, but don't tend to capture the cans, bottles, cartons and packets we all use away from our homes."
The consensus seems to be that the government has laid the foundations for a drastic and long-awaited improvement in the UK's recycling and waste management efforts, and as such businesses should prepare now for increased costs and a major crackdown on plastic waste. But Ministers still face a host of tricky and potentially controversial decisions if they are to turn their admirable vision into reality.
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