Reuse: the lesser spotted resource policy

Director of Innovation and Policy at producer compliance scheme Ecosurety, Robbie Staniforth, considers the need for laws to promote reuse in the UK.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. These three words are a simple mantra that is entrenched in the psyche of most UK residents. It is simple and easily understood, unlike higher-brow derivatives. Talk of moving to a more “circular economy” excites many, as it points to a much bigger paradigm shift in the way the world works.

However, it is yet to go through enough iterations to be commonly understood by those close to the theory, let alone the general population. Perhaps before leapfrogging to policy that makes our whole economy more circular, there are still actions that can be taken under the simple three-step waste hierarchy, especially when it comes to reuse.

Nearly two decades have passed since the G8 recognised the need to “reduce, reuse and recycle” at their Sea Island Summit, yet much global public policy focus has remained on the latter, to encourage recycling by weight.

The prevalence of weight-based metrics in regulation has also had some positive impact on reducing the volume of resources used.

There has been an explicit benefit to companies who reduce the weight of packaging, electronics, or batteries that they place onto the market as their compliance costs reduce proportionately.

This fact has not been without perverse consequences though. The trend for light-weighting products has meant some producers have switched to less recyclable formats, particularly complex plastics.

Any meaningful rules on reuse though are yet to be seen. The electronics recycling industry has probably been at the forefront in terms of regulatory definitions, but 15 years after the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) regulations came into effect in the UK, the industry is still trying to define the difference between used-EEE and WEEE.

General apathy on the subject has begun to set in, despite the importance of the topic. Ultimately, the system of producer compliance incentivises the recycling of equipment, over tinkering with them and keeping them in circulation.

So, what could we do to promote reuse? How far should the Government go to promote it through policy? The short answer is: it’s complicated. Certainly, successive UK Governments have been guilty of tunnel vision when it comes to only setting and achieving recycling targets, but the same can be said for most Governments around the world.

The truth is that there are scant examples of reuse being promoted worldwide.

The idea of a product being “sold” and then “discarded” is the first outdated concept that needs reassessment. However, one commonly cited solution, of tracking all assets as they move from one user to another, seems somewhat overly optimistic, potentially over-engineered, and perhaps a touch authoritarian.

Differing approaches to how producers exercise responsibility is likely to be required for different materials and products. Better tracking may help in some areas but may be overkill in others.

Batteries, especially those used in electric vehicles and other mobility products, are an area where there is much ground to cover.

Many technical experts have cited the huge opportunity to repurpose cells from fast-charge, long-range, high-output applications to other lower specification functions. Placing operational producer responsibility on the individual organisation, rather than the collective, may motivate original equipment manufacturers to take faster action.

There is a huge reuse and recycling capacity gap that will only worsen once electric vehicle use becomes fully normalised, an issue that Norway is already having to confront. This is why battery and car manufacturers should be incentivised to design their batteries for reuse.


Robbie Staniforth speaking at LARAC 2018.

When it comes to packaging, the biggest prize is in high-volume and fast-moving grocery products. It never ceases to amaze me that milk, eggs, and bread are predominantly sold in single-use packaging, while reusable packaging systems for slower-moving household cleaning products are starting to appeal to a broader spectrum of citizens than just the “green and keen” among us.

Many brands have started to consider how they might implement their own take-back and reuse model to avoid the mass-recycling approach of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for beverage containers. Given the billions of pounds that DRS will cost, one can’t help but think the Government have missed a trick in not attempting to become world leaders on sustainable drink provision, rather than following an approach that is becoming outdated.

The Government will need to make sure the exemption from DRS for products utilising a reuse system is simple and clear, rather than putting up another barrier that prioritises recycling over refill. However, a balance needs to be struck to ensure that actual reuse rates are tracked as part of any exemption.

Targeted policies are needed to fast track companies to reuse models. Not all products are born equal, as evidenced by the fact we have producer responsibility for some, but not others. Austria has set reuse targets, based on beverage categories, which is viable for the UK, if only the Government were to re-consider their over-simplified DRS.

Many retailers have dedicated retail space to reuse with various trials taking place across a range of products. The learning from these trials needs to be consolidated and turned into targeted policy that helps to normalise reuse for certain categories.

Unfortunately, since the term “single-use plastic” became prevalent, too much focus has been on “plastic” and not enough on “single-use”.

The Government have idled over reuse and refill targets for packaging, which will only be introduced in 2025. Although it is disappointing that action will be delayed, it means we have 3 years to agree on what is needed.

For example, we could implement rules based on retail space allocation, the number of units sold, or the range of products covered.

Just as urgent, is the need to prioritise reuse outside of the grocery sector. Other packaging applications, such as in e-commerce, need to be targeted with legislation. Leaving the market to deliver solutions simply hasn’t worked. Informal reuse of postal packaging can be seen in any post office queue nationwide, but more needs to be done to increase the number of trips one item of packaging can make, from a handful at present, to thousands in future.

Reuse is not just about packaging though. Just in the last decade, we have seen single-use electronic tobacco products come to the market, further growth in disposable nappies, and t-shirts with a single wear lifespan. All of these have reusable alternatives that should receive preferential legislative treatment.

Solutions to recycling absorbent hygiene products are already in existence but scaling them up is unlikely without producer responsibility laws. If such regulations are hastily conceived, without adequate focus on promoting reusable alternatives, we could be deceiving ourselves into thinking that progress has been made.

There is an unfortunate symmetry that the business model for fast fashion has offshored both manufacturing and the waste problem. Some sort of tariff to disincentivise the practice of creating low-quality garments has been urgently required for some time.

To conclude on a positive note, there is one example where the solution is quite simple. There is little reason to accept the practice of selling single-use vaping or heated tobacco products. These should simply be banned, which would shift everyone in the UK who uses them to reusable alternatives overnight.

As always, there is a range of policy options available to the UK Government. From bans and taxes to product specification requirements and producer responsibility. Now is the time to stop dreaming of reuse and make it legislated policy.

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