Iain Ferguson, environment manager at the Co-operative, says we need a common approach when it comes to what can and what can’t be recycled… it all seems simple on the face of it, but it’s more complicated than that!
The Co-op recently published the “Tipping Point” report, which pointed out that only one third of plastic packaging on consumer goods put on the UK market gets recycled. This is a shocking waste of resources, which needs to be addressed. Finding a way through the mired complexities of packaging design and packaging recyclability is not easy, but we do need to persevere.
There are two simple concepts that can be established to start with that will help in moving forward:
- Brand owners and retailers are responsible for what they put on the market. If they want their packaging to be recyclable, they need to take account of what local authorities collect.
- Local authorities own the household waste management system and they therefore decide what is accepted.
This all seems simple enough on the face of it. However, it’s more complicated than those simple and logical statements suggest. We have around 10 major retailers and a relatively small number of major brands that are responsible for the vast majority of packaging placed on the market. These retailers and brands operate across all four UK administrations, plus the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Some will also operate in other European countries. For retailers, that is complicated enough; as an illustration, just consider the different rules on carrier bags that we have – basically three different sets of rules. Now extend that complexity to 391 local authorities instead of four plus two administrations.
It’s OK for some materials – glass, cans, card and plastic bottles are fairly straightforward. But when we get to plastic pots, tubs and trays, the situation becomes incredibly complex. We have just reached 75 percent of local authorities (296) collecting plastic pots, tubs and trays. A significant milestone; we are over the threshold to trigger “widely recycled” under OPRL labelling. However, within this 296, there are 32 local authorities with restrictions on what can be included, and those 32 don’t even agree with each other on what the restrictions should be. There are nine restriction regimes in England, two in Scotland and one in Wales making 12 in total (none in Northern Ireland).
This situation makes it difficult for retailers and brands to navigate what materials to use for packaging and how to design it. It also makes it difficult for OPRL to become a simple “YES/NO” system that would reduce consumer confusion, and it’s consumer confusion that reduces recycling quantity and quality.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to local authority representatives through CIWM and LARAC, talking to RECOUP and OPRL to try to get to a point at which we can get a coherent approach to selecting the right packaging. And that is the problem; I’ve spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people!
If local authorities could agree on a common position on what they can recycle, it would be a lot simpler for retailers and brands to align, as far as possible, with that position, and it would make labelling for recyclability much more straightforward. It would also make it easier for packaging manufacturers to engage with the system to address the barriers to their products being recyclable.
Please be assured, I am on your side, but we do need a more common approach. We would be keen to work with CIWM and LARAC on this. Now, about those carrier bag rules…
Iain has been with the Co-op for 27 years and is environment manager, delivering initiatives such as closing the loop on office paper recycling to make bathroom tissue and kitchen roll, and EN 13432 certified carrier bags to support local authority food waste collections. Iain is passionate about improving packaging recyclability and alongside his role, he is trustee of RECOUP and chairs the Rationalisation of Packaging working group.