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Mission impossible for packaging waste? | Analysis

September 3, 2014 No Comments » Print Print

The EU’s tough waste recycling targets have been met by widespread criticism from the industry. So why is this the case and what options do various trade bodies have? Olivia McCrea-Hedley discovers more

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Last month the EU proposed a tough set of waste recycling targets that have been met with much resistance by the packaging industry.

The new proposals revolve around the aim for 80% of packaging waste materials to be recycled by 2030. This is split into three increasing targets over the coming years, with 60% to be reached by 2020 and 70% by 2025.

As part of the waste prevention programme further levels have been set for individual packaging materials. 90% of paper, ferrous metal, aluminium and glass packaging must be recycled or prepared for reuse by 2030.

Recyclable waste will also be banned from all landfill sites by 2025.

Europe is working to make a transition from a linear to a circular economy, with governments looking for a way to make reusing and recycling the norm. But with standards set higher than ever before and major investment costs required to meet them, what effect will this have on the UK packaging industry?

These targets have been heavily criticised. Dick Searle, chief executive of the Packaging Federation, points out the negative financial impact of the proposal. “These targets mean that every piece of packaging made will need to be collected, which will cost huge sums of money and isn’t even doable.”

Rebecca Cocking, head of container affairs at British Glass, explains that these costs could come in the form of the amount of extra jobs that will have to be created in order to reach the figures.
“Who is going to collect this waste? How will it be collected? It’s a question of cost about how this can be practically achieved.”

Commentators in the packaging industry say that these targets could never be met, with Searle branding them “utterly impossible”. Jane Bickerstaffe, director at Incpen, described the targets as ridiculously high. “They are unachievable,” she says. “There is no way you could ever do this.”

Bickerstaffe states that the targets will definitely increase from their current levels, but after lobbying from the industry they will be set to a much more sensible level. “The last review of recycling was in 2007, where a sensible recycling level was agreed for 2008. The new proposal could come to this same conclusion, where the government set targets at a realistic level so that everyone can catch up.”

The UK’s recycling levels are already higher than other countries in the EU. According to Searle, some countries are still in single figures for the percentage of packaging they recycle. “We need to spend more time levelling out the playing field in Europe before we start to give out further costs to those who are already meeting high targets.”

Defra ‘receptive’
These opinions have been put forward to Defra and the government department has been receptive to the packaging industry’s issues, explains Andrew Barnetson, director of packaging affairs at the Confederation of Paper Industries. “We have had a very constructive conversation with Defra and BIS about how we don’t think meeting these targets with the new methods is very possible,” he says.

The “new methods” Barnetson refers to are part of the proposed new methodology for the recycling process. This involves switching to an output-based calculation for recycling packaging waste, which he says could become a problem in regards to these new figures.

“To meet even the 85% target for paper by 2025 will be impossible if we don’t count the waste. It is an inevitable by-product of recycling,” adds Barnetson.

Disregarding the proposed methodology, Barnetson doesn’t find the earlier figures for 2025 wholly unachievable. “We are at 81.3% now, so the proposed 85% we could probably do,” he says. “As for the eventual 90% to be recycled by 2030, this is far less achievable.”

Cocking, on the other hand, is more optimistic about the 2030 targets. “It’s not unachievable but it won’t happen overnight. If you throw enough money at something then you can do almost anything.”

New incentives favoured
Both Cocking and Barnetson are in favour of a new recycling incentive; Barnetson, in particular, says that the EU as a whole needs to make better use of its resources. But he also highlights one of the main dilemmas on behalf of the paper packaging industry.

“We are very conscious of the quality of materials we use and this is something we won’t compromise on,” says Barnetson. “You can almost go too far with recycling and it can become more costly and less beneficial to the environment. It’s about achieving this in an environmentally sensible way.”

Sarah Plant, public and industrial affairs manager for the British Plastics Federation reinforces this idea. “Switching to an output based calculation for recycling plants while simultaneously increasing targets will drive the focus even further away from quality to quantity, the likely result being an increase in exports of waste, an unwelcome prospect for proponents of a circular economy,” she says.

While some have a more positive outlook on these targets, the general consensus is that the figures are too high. Fortunately, these targets are still in the proposal stage. With Defra lobbying these decisions on behalf of the packaging industry, there is still plenty of time for things to change as it could be 2016 before the levels can be agreed upon and finalised. Expect more debate and discussion over the coming months and years.

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