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Angeli Mehta assesses the challenges ahead as the UK retail industry embarks on the journey to remove single-waste plastics by 2025 with a focus on 'on the go' recycling
The recent launch of JUST Water, a water bottle made from 82% renewable materials, in 800 Boots stores is the latest development in the UK retail industry response to growing consumer pressure to end plastic waste.
Billed as "mostly from plants”, JUST’s water bottle is made from FSC-certified paper, lined with a thin layer of aluminium and plastic film. The plastic in the cap and shoulder of the bottle are made mainly from sugarcane.
JUST Water’s packaging starts its journey in a flat roll made by its parent company JUST Goods, a US-based B Corp founded by actor Will Smith and his son Jaden. It then gets folded into shape when filled with spring water at its UK bottling partner’s plant in Northern Ireland.
The pack can be recycled widely in UK local authority collections, but JUST Water company suggests that, with care, it can be reusable. It will hope the “on-the-go” consumers who buy their bottles at Boots will do just that.
JUST Water’s launch comes after Boots and 67 other retailers, brands, makers of packaging and waste and recycling companies signed the UK Plastics Pact earlier this year, setting a voluntary target for all plastics packaging to be either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Surveys suggest the under-35s, the most vocal group when it comes to recycling, actually recycle least
Separately, several companies in the UK's bottled water and soft drinks industry, including Danone Waters, Lucozade Ribena and Nestlé Waters, have worked with the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge (CISL), to come up with a roadmap to eliminate plastics packaging waste from their UK value chains by 2030.
Beverley Cornaby of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) said the roadmap would see the bottled water industry go further than the UK plastics pact, though it doesn’t set additional targets. As a starting point, it wants to see policy actions to encourage use of recycled materials and support investment in reprocessors.
These initiatives are timely because the UK government is considering policy that will potentially reform the landscape for recycling in Britain. A long-awaited Waste and Resources Strategy is expected later this year. On-the-go consumption is in its sights, with Defra due to consult on a deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use drinks containers aimed at cutting litter and boosting recycling.
The idea is that consumers would pay a small deposit (eg 10p), which would be refunded when they return the bottle to a retailer or collection point. Such a scheme used to exist for glass bottles before the arrival of plastic: indeed, Scottish soft drinks maker AG Barr operated its scheme until three years ago.
The UK's largest supermarket chain, Tesco, has just begun trialling reverse vending machines in four stores in England, Scotland and Wales, paying 10p for every bottle returned. It follows Iceland, which began trials in selected stores in May, and Morrisons, which started trials in June.
Jane Bevis, chair of the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) scheme – whose label is on the JUST Water bottle – argues a DRS needs to tackle on-the-go consumption, rather than detract from existing local authority collection schemes. She points out that surveys suggest that the under-35s, the most vocal group when it comes to recycling, actually recycle least, and are more likely to eat out and on-the-go
This month OPRL will begin industry-backed trials of its #LeedsbyExample app: on-pack bar codes will let consumers in Leeds know whether material can be recycled, and how far it is to the nearest recycling site.
What’s needed is a well-designed system that builds on the collection system the UK already has
The Scottish government launched its public consultation on DRS at the end of June, fueling concern that we could end up with different schemes operating in different parts of the UK. However, ministers and officials from the devolved administrations have since met to discuss co-ordinated action.
Chris Brown, managing director of the UK’s largest PET recycling facility, Clean Tech, says: “What’s needed is a well-designed system that builds on the collection system the UK already has.” He adds: “Getting incremental collection and incremental quality of feedstock is key.”
Experts say action, ambition and investment are all urgently needed to make plastic packaging recyclable, encourage consumers to recycle it, and ensure there’s consistent quality of materials for processors, so it is valued and recycled.
Reforms are urgently needed to overhaul the UK’s 20-year-old producer responsibility system, which is designed to meet EU targets for recycling at a low cost to industry, rather than obligate companies to collect and recycle their own packaging.
Under the system, companies that handle over 50 tonnes of packaging a year and have a turnover above £2m – including manufacturers, supermarkets, and makers of packaged goods – have to show that they’ve recovered and recycled a minimum level of packaging waste.
To do that they buy packaging waste recovery notes (PRN) from UK reprocessors or waste exporters for the amount of packaging they’ve recycled. These are sold on the open market and prices vary with demand.
The current system is a comfortable way to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues
According to a report from the National Audit office (NAO) in July, reprocessors and exporters were paid £73m in 2017.
Meanwhile, Defra estimates that in England alone, local authorities (and hence taxpayers) spent £700m collecting and sorting waste in 2017.
Businesses in other parts of Europe pay a lot more for recycling - almost four times as much in Germany and the Netherlands, for example. But there, the system is intended to fully cover the costs of collecting household packaging waste.
The NAO has condemned the system as having “evolved into a comfortable way for government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues.”
It points out that the system “relies on exporting materials to other parts of the world without adequate checks to ensure this material is actually recycled”, or whether other countries will continue to accept it in the longer term. As China has shown us, they won’t.
It’s telling that since 2002 the amount of waste exported for recycling has increased more than six times, while the amount recycled here has not grown.
Clean Tech’s Chris Brown explains that this is because of the incentives structure: a PRN is generated for 100% of the tonnage exported, but if materials are processed in the UK the PRN is only generated on the percentage of material that is actually recycled.
Typically, Clean Tech finds that 30% of what it receives for recycling is not suitable to go through its wash process.
Eunomia believes reported plastics recycling rates are over inflated by as much as a third
That’s one of the reasons that environmental consultant Eunomia believes reported plastics recycling rates are over inflated by as much as a third.
According to Brown there is strong demand for recycled PET from brands – like its biggest customer Coca-Cola – that have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact committing them to using more recycled content.
But there are questions over availability of feedstock both in the UK and in continental Europe. He’d like to see that materials collected here are processed in the UK, and says there should be incentives for the industry to come up with solutions that will make more recycled material available.
The government is expected to begin consultations later this year on reforming PRN as part of the Waste and Resources Strategy. But it already has some answers from the Treasury’s investigation of how the tax system could be used to cut waste of single-use plastics, and how barriers to investment in the recycling industry can be overcome.
The signatories to the UK Plastics Pact are also mobilizing to seek solutions. David Moon, head of business collaboration at WRAP, which convenes the UK Plastics Pact, told a recent meeting at Coca-Cola European Partners that action groups have been set up to look at how to tackle key issues, including how to measure progress towards the agreed targets.
Signatories are being consulted about potential flagship projects to solve big challenges such as black plastics and film recycling; and work is being done on guidance around bioplastics, polymer choice and film recycling.
We don’t want to lose plastic as a packaging material but we have to value materials more – to ensure 2nd ... 25th life
“We’re looking for leading businesses to participate so we develop best practice and collectively work on engaging the citizen, which is arguably the hardest challenge,” Moon said.
The value being lost at the household level was highlighted by Zero Waste Scotland last year when it reported that 60% of waste that went to landfill could have been collected at the kerb-side for recycling. That included 15,000 tonnes of PET plastic drinks bottles, which would have been worth between £375,000 and £1.95m had they been recycled.
Industry recognizes that it has to be as easy as possible to recycle at the household level, but that it also has to take action to filter out the more difficult materials and simplify the range of things it is dealing with, suggests Bevis. “We don’t want to lose plastic as a packaging material but we have to value materials more – to ensure 2nd, 3rd ... 25th life.”
But there are choices to be made as part of a bigger sustainability assessment. Take vegetables. To extend shelf-life these are often packaged in a gaseous atmosphere that is modified from the air we breathe, and so the polyethylene (PE) packaging has to be sealed. Bevis says recyclable PE films can’t be sealed, so there’s a balance to be struck, as the impact of food waste is greater in terms of carbon emissions.
Another big recycling challenge is flexible laminated packaging, which is made of multiple layers of materials, such as aluminium, paper and plastics.
OPRL intends to help its members, which include retailers and manufacturers, to design packaging with recycling in mind
Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), says it’s working on solutions to make it easier to collect and recycle its drinks pouches, and is collaborating to develop industry-wide solutions.
Meanwhile, Cambridge-based Enval has developed a process to recycle aluminium and plastic laminated packaging but is struggling to get support from brands, or for local authorities to agree to collect the material. It is recycling the post-production waste from CCEP’s Capri-Sun pouches, but not post-consumer waste.
CCEP’s response is that the economics of the process make it difficult for local authorities to introduce the necessary collection systems. Perhaps this is an example of where producers need to take responsibility.
“Where product needs are such that you’re pushed down a particular route, is there a way to create infrastructure, or have we really got the design [of the packaging] right?” Bevis asks.
OPRL intends to help its members (which include retailers and manufacturers) to design packaging with recycling in mind. It’s now testing the UK version of an Australian Prep for Design tool. The online tool will provide an assessment of recyclability, given current collection and processing systems, and whether the value of the material is diminished by, for example, putting a PVC sleeve around it.
Brown comments that he’s “never seen so many different areas of our customers’ business spending time to understand the environmental impact of their products and how to minimize that”. He suggests that while there will be no overnight solutions, the progress made so far needs to be encouraged.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta. This feature article is linked to 'We need to keep plastics in our economy - but out of the oceans'