At Biffa’s Teesside plant, around 20 per cent of incoming waste is not readily recyclable

The problem with packaging

Image credit: Biffa

The UK’s plan for packaging was big, bold, and popular with the public. Now, four years on, how is it all going? As it turns out, change can be slow, and in some cases, extremely complex.

The conveyor belt whizzes past, carrying waste that residents have put in their recycling bins. Moving almost as fast, a handful of pickers remove items that shouldn’t be there (a negative pick) or collect ones that should (a positive pick). Cardboard packaging, aluminium cans and plastic bottles all fly by and will be recycled. But so too do keyboards, baking trays, dustpans, and an awful lot of flexible packaging – sweet wrappers, bread bags and the like – all of which are ‘contaminants’.

“The cleaner the stream, the quicker you can run everything,” explains Richard Hinchcliffe, regional manager at Suez Recycling and Recovery UK, which operates the plant near Bedlington under a contract with Northumberland County Council, “and the less residual waste we send to energy from waste [incineration] or landfill.”

These are the cards – or rather the cans, containers, and contaminants – the UK’s waste collectors are dealt. They are beholden to what people pop in their bins and what packaging companies and retailers place on the market. Their role is to extract as many valuable resources as possible for recycling into ‘new’ packaging and goods, and then deal with whatever is left over.

The system at these materials recycling facilities (MRFs, pronounced ‘merfs’), involving human pickers, trommels, magnets and other sorting technology, is slick. What looks like a mess coming in is transformed into neat, tidy bales of bottles, cans, paper, and card. Twenty years ago, the throughput in one of these plants would have been 2.5 tonnes per hour, but here in Northumberland it can be up to 15 tonnes. Some are now designed to handle over 40 tonnes every hour.

Biffa recycling plant

Image credit: Gettyimages

At a nearby site in Teesside run by Biffa, another waste contractor, they are about to install a robot to help with those negative picks – but if the government’s packaging policies pan out, the new ‘employee’ should have less and less to do.

Major reforms announced in the government’s resources and waste strategy for England in 2018 included a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, extended producer responsibility for packaging (pEPR) and harmonised household and business collections of waste. The list of banned single-use plastic items is also lengthening. Together with a Treasury-led plastic packaging tax, (which came into force in April), new policies should reduce plastic waste, increase recycling rates, improve packaging design, and see more recycled plastic displace virgin plastic. More materials should also be processed in the UK rather than sending them abroad.

This plan for packaging was big, bold, and popular with the public. It would also deliver considerable savings on greenhouse gas emissions.Four years on, how is it all going?

“Considerable progress” has been made since the strategy in 2018, said waste minister Jo Churchill in a recorded address to the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) environment seminar in late May.

In reality, consultations have dragged, while policies have been pushed back, watered down and fallen out of kilter with one another. This is a huge shift, and change can be slow when dealing with millions of tonnes of materials, years-long contracts for council waste collections and a complex basket of new policies. Chuck in a global pandemic, a war and an extremely volatile market for packaging materials and it is no surprise some businesses are lobbying for a pause in packaging policies.

Unfortunately, the UK has a packaging problem that continues to pile up – quite literally, in plants like the ones E&T visited. At Biffa’s Teesside plant, around 20 per cent of what turns up at the front door each week is not supposed to be there. Most is hard-to-recycle plastic that is turned into refuse-derived fuel (there are also large bits of plastic and metal, plus about two tonnes of car batteries every quarter to manage). Then there is “all the good stuff we are missing out on that sadly sometimes ends up in people’s general waste bins”, says the company’s waste strategy and packaging manager Roger Wright.

Indeed, a progress report for the strategy, published in November, showed that 53 per cent of residual waste (which ends up buried or burned) consisted of readily recyclable materials. Of the plastic waste in there, 25 per cent was easily recyclable. Additionally, 31 per cent could be reprocessed through new technologies like chemical recycling. “The total recycling rate for packaging material has changed little between 2012 and 2020,” the report noted, rising from 61 to just 62 per cent.

Provisional data for 2021, just published by Defra, shows a new rate of 63 per cent. Plastic (along with wood) remains the laggard with 632,000 tonnes of the 1.4 million tonnes recycled (44 per cent). Paper and cardboard packaging is 71 per cent, glass 74 per cent and aluminium 75 per cent. New targets under the government’s extended producer responsibility scheme are for 68 per cent of all packaging to be recycled by 2024 and 76 per cent by 2030. Are these achievable?

Key packaging policies in the strategy – DRS, consistent kerbside collections and pEPR – are supposed to ensure they are. Which is most important depends on who you speak to. “In my view, it’s the collections that will have the biggest effect,” Mark Pawsey, MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on packaging, said at the Packaging Innovations show in Birmingham in May.

Through powers in the Environment Act 2021, all councils will have to collect glass, metal, plastic, paper and card, food waste and garden waste separately. This will simplify the process for the public and improve efficiency of the system. The likes of Biffa, Suez and other waste contractors, as well as councils they service, are still in limbo as they await final details, including when collections will need to start.

“These policies like EPR should drive the use of more recyclable packaging and reduce the variety of materials we are dealing with,” says Hinchcliffe at Suez. “Imagine if all food trays were made of one material, like high density polyethylene (HDPE), for example, or if plastic bottles were clear – that would make a massive difference in terms of the economics of our business and the environmental impact of packaging.”

There are lots of variables to deal with. From 2027, household collections will also need to include soft plastics, which are currently low in value and hard to recycle. These wrappers, bags and pouches make up a fifth of all plastic packaging, but only 6 per cent is recycled and almost none of it is recycled back into food packaging. Waste management firms must “radically change” their processes to separate flexible materials, says Biffa’s Wright. “The existing MRF/PRF’s [plastic recycling facilities] are all adaptable operations up to a point, but the risk profile of such wholesale changes and the slowing down of the processing is enormous,” he adds.

Finding end markets won’t be easy. What’s more, higher value packaging, like plastic bottles and aluminium cans, will be siphoned off to the new deposit return schemes, in which deposits are paid on drinks purchases and refunded when containers are returned. Supporters say these ensure a high-quality stream of recyclables with almost no contamination, but not everyone is in favour.

Stacked Paper Cubes

Image credit: Biffa

The latest consultation on a DRS generated 2,590 responses, with some business representatives arguing that it’s expensive and would be better implemented after pEPR. Plans to have differing schemes across devolved nations have also been branded madness. Glass won’t be included in England and Northern Ireland schemes, for example, but it will in Wales and Scotland.

Scotland’s scheme is likely to come in first, and it has also pressed ahead with bans on single-use plastic items. Manufacture and supply of food containers and cups made from expanded polystyrene, plastic plates, stirrers and cutlery were all banned from 1 June. Scotland’s circular economy minister Lorna Slater has also just convened the first meeting of a new expert group, which will shape plans for mandatory charges on single-use disposable beverage cups. The Environment Act will give the Westminster government similar powers as politicians look to discourage use of disposable packaging and promote reuse.

A report by Wrap and Valpak in February showed that 3.2 billion single-use fibre-composite cups were used in 2019, with just 2.8 per cent being recycled. Almost none of the 3.2 billion pieces of fibre-composite food packaging placed on the market were recycled because there was “no recycling or infrastructure in place” for these materials. Targets for fibre-composite packaging – which has become a popular alternative to pure plastic – will be set for 2026, with a mandatory take-back scheme introduced in 2024 under the new pEPR regime.

Extended producer responsibility is, for many, the flagship packaging policy on which everything else hangs. Defra packaging producer responsibility lead Linda Crichton says EPR will help ensure unnecessary packaging is avoided – more is designed to be recycled, quality of recycling improves, and there is less littering. “We also want to see more materials recycled here in the UK.”

Under EPR, local authorities will receive payments for management of household packaging. The system will move from the current packaging waste recovery note system (PRN), through which producers pay a fraction (around 10 per cent) of the cost of disposing their packaging waste, to EPR in which they foot the full costs. This will obviously boost council coffers, and how funds flow will be closely watched.

Recently, councils have been signing temporary short-term waste contracts (at a premium) as they await details – not only of the consistent collections, but also the funds available from EPR to support them. The annual EPR bill for packaging producers is expected to be around £1.7bn – £1bn less than previous estimates, as the government has decided to shrink the scope to only household packaging waste (including that collected in street bins), omitting business and commercial waste for now.

Full implementation has also been delayed to 2025 as the government thrashes out, among other things, what the modulated fees will look like. The more recyclable the packaging, the lower the price producers will pay. In turn, packaging that is difficult or costly to recycle should attract a very high cost. Whether it will be enough to bring about changes is unclear. Some say it might be easier to pay the fee than to buy more recyclable packaging (which is happening with plastic packaging tax, too).

There is a brand risk for companies though, because under EPR, there will be a binary system for labelling: packaging will be marked ‘recycle’ or ‘do not recycle’ and few companies will want to be associated with the latter. The rules make sense: not knowing which bin to put things in is an oft-cited headache for householders.

Nonetheless, some packaging manufacturers are irked. For example, compostable packaging will be branded ‘do not recycle’. Challenged recently on the topic, Defra’s Crichton explained that “our initial priority is increasing recycling, and compostables are not recyclable”.

Compostable plastic, like that made from fossil fuels, is also subject to the new plastic packaging tax – a £200 per tonne charge placed on plastic packaging that doesn’t contain at least 30 per cent recycled content. This, together with voluntary commitments made by supermarkets and brands, has triggered investment in domestic recycling capacity. However, tax revenues are not ring-fenced, which has exasperated industry bodies like the British Plastics Federation. The monies could have been used to support a national verification and certification system to prevent fraud (lab tests to determine recycled content are in their infancy) and invest in infrastructure.

The national packaging waste database shows 51 per cent of plastic packaging was recycled in 2020 – 41 per cent of it in the UK. In 2018, that figure was 35 per cent. To hit 30 per cent recycled content for all plastic packaging placed on the market would require doubling the reprocessing capacity to 460,000 tonnes, according to Steve Morgan at charity Recoup. The tax, DRS, pEPR and consistent collections should all help close that gap, but it will still take time to build facilities to deal with all the extra material.

“The recycling journey is a long one,” warns Egor Dementev, senior analyst on plastics recycling at ICIS. The UK government knows that only too well.

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