An independent report by environmental consultancy Eunomia claims the UK “consistently overestimates” how much of the plastic packaging waste it produces actually gets recycled.
Official Defra statistics published recently suggest that in 2015 UK households and businesses produced 2.26m tonnes of plastic packaging waste and recycled almost 39%, well above the current EU target of 22.5%.
However, by analysing what is known about the composition of waste in the UK, the new Eunomia report Plastic Packaging – Shedding Light on the UK Data claims that the real amount of plastic packaging waste produced is much higher – around 3.5m tonnes.
Assuming that the amount reported as recycled is correct, it seems the real recycling rate may be 9-10 percentage points lower than the government claims, Eunomia says.
If this is the case, the UK may well have failed to meet its recycling targets under the EU Directive in the years 2008-2012.
The report goes on to identify where problems occur in the system. One major issue highlighted is that when material is “placed on the market” it is clean, dry and free from extraneous material such as labels. However, when the quantity collected for recycling is measured, the weight is likely to be inflated by the inclusion of moisture and contaminants.
That might be the source of some of the over-reporting, Eunomia says.
“The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”
Another problem highlighted is that official data on the quantity of plastic packaging placed on the market were estimated in work conducted for Defra by the UK’s largest “compliance scheme”, Valpak, extrapolating from its own figures.
Eunomia’s report says that the lower the figure for the packaging placed on the market, the lower the fees that producers have to pay into the “compliance schemes”, through which most choose to discharge their legal obligations on recycling.
A lower figure also reduces the amount of material that needs to be recycled in order to meet the targets, keeping down the costs of compliance to industry, Eunomia says.
In some other European countries, producers meet the full cost of household recycling systems, the report suggests that the UK system means that businesses cover at most 10% of the cost of providing the household recycling service they rely on to deliver compliance.
Eunomia Chairman, Dominic Hogg, said: “It’s not really surprising to find that the UK’s recycling rate for plastics is not as good as is claimed. The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost, rather than achieving high quality recycling of plastic packaging.
“The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures. The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”
[UPDATE 7 March]
Valpak told BBC News: “The producer responsibility system was deliberately designed by government and industry to meet required recycling targets at minimum cost. It was not intended to cover all the costs (of recycling).”
It estimated that producers contributed £100m a year towards recycling – that’s between 25% and 30% of what they estimate is the total recycling bill.
Valpak recently calculated the situation is not so bad as it is portrayed, it says. The current collection rate for plastic drinks containers in the UK is actually 74% – not the 57%, he said – thanks to kerbside collection systems.
It added government was considering changes to the PRN system, which could involve an increased cost share by producers to fund specific activities.
Valpak spokesman, Adrian Hawkes, said there was no evidence of producers deliberately under-reporting their plastic production.
He said robust systems were in place to develop reasonable estimates of the total packaging placed on the market.
“We are confident in our information because it is based on very detailed and comprehensive data representing over 50% of UK packaged goods sales,” he told BBC News.
“We use the UK’s largest and most comprehensive database of packaging weights covering hundreds of thousands of different products to calculate the total tonnage of packaging put on the market.”
But, according to BBC News, he “did concede the report raised challenges over packaging associated with on-line purchases across borders – and the fact that some smaller businesses do not currently have to make a report”.
He said their calculations were audited by the Environment Agency – and pointed out that providing false data is an offence.