Reducing the amount of waste we create

The Government’s landmark Resources and Waste strategy needs continued ambition to ensure success, says Maddy Haughton-Boakes, Litter Campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England

Not a week seems to go by without a headline relating to litter, plastic pollution or the mismanagement of the UK’s waste and recycling systems. And rightly so. Organisations have been highlighting the impact that our throwaway culture is having on the environment for years and, thanks in large part to Blue Planet II and China’s ban on waste imports, the issue is finally receiving the attention it requires for solutions to be implemented.

This means government has a strong public mandate to deal with our waste problem and a golden opportunity to become a world leader in tackling the global scourge of plastic pollution. The recent Waste and Resources Strategy and subsequent consultations on a deposit return system, consistent household recycling systems, extended producer responsibility and a tax on virgin plastic packaging are, overall, a strong starting point. But we need continued ambition and forward planning to ensure we reduce the amount of waste we create.

It is clear that the government, led in this area by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), recognises that our waste and recycling system is broken. All stakeholders working in this area – from environmental organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), to packaging industry representatives, waste management companies and local councils – understand that radical reforms are needed if we’re to deal with our growing waste problem.

CPRE has been campaigning for systems change in this area for many years, advocating for the government to take a strategic approach to the issue and implement legislation that will enable a lasting reduction in litter and reduce waste overall. We were successful with our calls for the 5p carrier bag charge and we’re on the cusp of an even bigger success with a deposit return system.

Although local councils have worked tirelessly in an attempt to improve recycling rates, adapting household recycling systems and spending millions on street cleaning to deal with the ever growing mountain of packaging, under the current system they are fighting a losing battle. Our current waste system is failing to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce, provides no incentives for reusing products and is even falling short of acceptable levels of recycling with much of our heavily contaminated, poor quality recycling being shipped off for other countries to deal with.

Ultimately, the problem has been that producers and manufacturers of packaging – who are responsible for, and profit from, creating the waste – are not held accountable for ensuring that their products are collected and recycled at the end of their life. We need action to be taken higher up the value chain if we’re to curtail the great tide of waste. Thankfully that’s what the Resources and Waste Strategy is starting to do.

Progress so far
The consultation on a deposit return system shows that Defra have understood the benefits of ensuring that producers pay the full costs of recovery and recycling, and that a deposit system is the best way of achieving high recycling rates, high quality material streams for beverages and is a hugely effective way of reducing litter. Introducing a deposit system – where bottles can be turned back into bottles, and cans back into cans – creates a closed-loop recycling stream, and is a step in the right direction towards creating a circular economy.

CPRE is urging the government to establish a truly world leading system, building on their ‘all-in’ model by including all sizes and materials of drinks containers in combination with modulated producer fees that would ensure the difficulty of recycling products such as cartons or pouches is reflected in the price the producers pay.

Drinks containers are currently designed in an array of colours and awkward shapes, with unique and detachable openings that makes them difficult to recycle, driving down the quality of the material stream. The financial incentive on producers, created through modulated producer fees, drives good packaging design that ensures the products placed on the market are easily recyclable with no detachable parts that can easily fall off and are accidentally littered.

The proposed time frame for the introduction of England’s deposit system means that it will not come into place until 2023. This unambitious target begs the question of what we’ll be doing for the next three years and why the significant delay? It is likely that Scotland will press on with implementing their deposit return system well ahead of 2023, in which case we would hope that this will speed up the process in England to avoid the unnecessary complication of irregularity across the borders.

The consultation on reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility exemplifies the time and thought that Defra must have put into this area and a palpable desire to create a lasting change. Defra are proposing to reduce the amount of unnecessary and difficult to recycle packaging and increase the amount that is recycled by shifting the costs of the system onto the producers, in much the way that a deposit system does.

Both the consultation on producer responsibility and a deposit return are designed to work alongside reforms to what is collected through household and business recycling. It is paramount for household recycling to work that people understand what can be recycled; ensuring consistency enables clarity of public messaging in this area and a lack of confusion.

Aside from Defra’s consultations, HM Treasury is also running their own consultation on a plastic packaging tax that is designed to drive forward market demand for recycled materials, and so supporting the other reforms through market mechanisms. The intentions here are to be lauded but this consultation is perhaps the one lacking in the least ambition.

The proposal looks to introduce a tax on plastic packaging that contains less than 30 per cent recycled content. This target is extremely conservative and there are no signs that it would seek to increase the tax, incrementally, in order to continue driving forward the recycled plastics market.

The slight failings in ambition in time frames and targets aside, the Resources and Waste strategy and four consultations are a welcome milestone in the struggle to reduce our use of packaging and creation of waste. They will go a long way in strengthening our recycling and waste management systems and begin to incentivise producers to reduce the amount of packaging they pile into our lives.

Ensuring success
It is imperative that we see this as a starting point for reduction efforts and begin considering how we can create systems for reuse. Without continued ambition and forward thinking it is inevitable that the UK’s efforts will stall again without having achieved a truly circular economy or drastically reducing the amount of packaging we use. This is what’s needed to reduce our environmental impacts, whether that’s from litter and plastic pollution, or from greenhouse gas emissions associated with inefficient waste management systems and the creation of packaging from virgin materials.

Recycling alone isn’t the answer which is why, along with other environmental organisations, CPRE will continue calling for a series of taxes, bans and charges on single-use items that are necessary to ensure a wholesale reduction in the amount of waste we’re producing. We need the government to set the standards and for industry follow suit, making it easier for people to do the right thing.

We also need to start considering how we can implement scalable systems of reuse. Building on a recycling-based deposit return system is one tried-and-tested option but we also need to apply this thinking to other items, such as takeaway food boxes.

The public has given the government a mandate to take the necessary action to tackle our throwaway culture, it must continue with its ambitious thinking and apply the necessary financial incentives and innovative solutions to reduce packaging and single-use items in the first place.

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