In 1996, European Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard wanted the manufacturers of products to realise that waste management was their problem as much as anyone else’s. “We cannot come to terms with the ever-growing amounts of waste in a rational way, unless concerns for waste minimisation and waste recovery are built into the product from the start,” she said.
And so the concept of producer responsibility was born – a subject that’s on the packaging industry’s radar and provokes much debate. After all, should the manufacturers, or producers, take the lion’s share of the responsibility? Or is it now the turn of consumers to step up – and if it is then should the Government interfere?
So what is producer responsibility? According to Incpen, it’s a policy concept designed to extend manufacturer’s responsibility beyond the sale and use of their products to include disposal at the end of life. It’s about designing packaging with its eventual disposal in mind and requires the producers to take some financial responsibility for the management and treatment of packaging waste. The concept can be traced back before the words of the EU Commissioner. In 1994, a directive from Brussels was created – the European Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. The term ‘producer responsibility’ was not used but remains law today.
“The discussion back then was more about the original definition that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had put together,” explains Jane Bickerstaffe, director at Incpen. The OECD called it Extended Producer Responsibility but the idea was pretty much the same – producers needed to accept their responsibility when designing products to minimise “life cycle impacts”.
Fast forward to today and the 1994 directive is now ripe for change. In 2014, a new EU Packaging Directive is set to come into force and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been gauging views for a consultation document that is set to roll out at the end of this year. Once published, there will be the opportunity to respond before Defra submits its recommendations to the EU. Bob Lisney, chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP), attended one of Defra’s workshops back in April, designed to discuss ways of improving the producer responsibility system.
“It was a really useful brainstorming workshop,” explains Lisney, who attended with around 30 other delegates. “The aim is not change the packaging targets or responsibilities but it may improve the process. For example, if you are a company that produces batteries, there currently needs to be three to four accreditations. It needs to be simplified.”
Lisney was impressed with Defra and believes that the department is onside when it comes to reducing the burden on industry. “We have definitely been listened to by Defra,” he says. “I have been impressed with the openness of the Defra team and they have a really good grasp of the issues in packaging.”
But while Defra is keen to tweak and simplify the producer responsibility system, there are others who want an overhaul. In the summer, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) published a report that called for a radical revamp. Titled Driving Resource Efficiency for a Competitive Britain. It called for better producer responsibility policies that change the nature of products.
The report claims that enforcement of the law has been handed to “often under-resourced local trading standards officers”. Perhaps more controversially, it argues that the lightweighting of packaging hasn’t had the desired effect – if anything, lighter packs have made packaging “more difficult and less economic to recycle”.Adrian Wilkes, chairman of the EIC, added: “There can be no doubt that the benefits of resource efficiency are huge, yet the Government is failing to take significant co-ordinated action. This is undermining policies aimed at tackling key environmental challenges such as climate change, while damaging the UK’s international competitiveness in a world facing rising prices for all raw materials.”
The charge that lightweighting hasn’t entirely worked is rebuffed by Bob McLellan, president of Citpa, the umbrella organisation for European associations of the paper and board converting industry.
“I find it interesting that they are pointing the finger – it’s not a balanced debate,” he argues. “It’s odd that the EIC is claiming that there is poor implementation. The lightweighting of packaging has been very powerful and is driven by cost and intelligent design. It can be gruelling but no packaging is made for the sake of itself.”
McLellan notes that problems occur at the waste collection point and that there is often no understanding of the product being collected. Local government’s aren’t getting value from waste collection firms and there is very little concern about how that waste will be recycled and reused in the material chain.
“The EIC is saying the problem is that there are fewer resources for local Government,” he adds. “But the producers bear the costs and that is unbalanced. There are enough costs for manufacturers.”
And then there’s the problem with Packaging Recovery Note system (PRN) and PERNs. The British Plastics Federation highlights that it is financially advantageous to exporters of waste and doesn’t help the UK recycler. Coca-Cola Enterprises, among others, has also urged a rethink and wants PRN revenue to fund recycling communication programmes for households.
But is there a part of the chain that has been overlooked when it comes to responsibility – the consumer? The concept of ‘consumer responsibility’ has plenty of supporters.
“Everything is driven by consumer demand and local authorities talk about producers paying more,” explains Dick Searle, chief executive at the Packaging Federation. “But while they can make producers pay more so should consumers – they need to be responsible as well.”
Incpen’s Bickerstaffe adds: “We talk about shared responsibilities. Take carrier bags – these bags do not litter themselves. There’s been no mention of people taking responsibility for their own actions.”
So is it now time that the Government set its sights on the consumer? While the ACP doesn’t have a position on the concept of consumer responsibility, Lisney does. “It’s not about consumer responsibility but how we live. There are lots of debates outside of the packaging industry about the demand for resources.”
He believes that with the global pressure on resources there will be a sea change and consumers will be slowly required to change their behaviour. But Lisney adds that the legislation isn’t the answer – it’s more likely that they will have to, like producers, stump up the cash to ensure that used packaging is disposed of responsibly. “Producers will engage consumers to use less waste – but you cannot enter into a nannying approach. You need leadership from producers,” explains Lisney.
Citpa’s McLellan adds that the one thing a future producer responsibility model doesn’t need is more legislation. “There has to be minimum legislation or guidelines. But the problem is that there are so many vested interests – I’m not sure how you can reconcile them all.”
In the meantime the packaging industry will read with interest Defra’s recommendations for the EU’s directive. Those that want a radical overhaul of producer responsibility policy are likely to be disappointed but there is a growing sense that manufacturers have paid enough towards disposing of packaging waste – now it’s time for the consumer to step up and show some responsibility.
- There are two sets of EU rules on producer responsibility: the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulation; and the Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulation.
- The former law sets design requirements for all packaging. It also requires member states to set up return, collection and recovery systems for packaging waste but does not specify who should fund them.
- The directive requires EU member states to ensure that packaging is not excessive for the purpose intended and is suitable for recycling, energy recovery or composting.
- The UK packaging and packaged goods industry contributes around £60m per year to support recycling.
- The UK requires all businesses in the packaging supply chain, which handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging and have an annual turnover of more than £2m, to purchase evidence showing that specified quantities of packaging waste have been delivered for reprocessing on their behalf.
- Instead of putting all the responsibility onto product manufacturers, many believe that the obligation should be divided between packaging raw material suppliers, packaging suppliers, packaged goods manufacturers and importers and distributors. All make a direct financial contribution.