Is our plastic waste really being recycled?

A report by the National Audit Office this week revealed that millions of tonnes of plastic waste from British businesses and households may be ending up in landfill across the world. Rebecca Maskrey, Senior Account Manager at SRA Supplier Paper Round, explains the background to how and why this might be happening, how it could affect your business and what you can do to reassure yourself that ‘recycling’ from your business really is being recycled.

What is the PRO – Brief summary

The Packaging Recycling Obligations were set up following an EU directive in 1997, as a market-based mechanism to incentivise recycling.

The obligation applies to companies handling more than 50 tonnes of packaging, with a turnover of £2 million or more. Producers have an obligation to pay for the disposal of their products by buying back “recovery evidence notes” from UK reprocessing plants, or from waste exporters.

Three main points from the NAO’s report

Producers appear to be getting off lightly

Packaging producers paid £73 million towards the cost of recycling their packaging in 2017, but it’s estimated that local authorities spent £700 million on the collecting and sorting of packaging waste. The cost to UK packaging producers works out at 13 euros a tonne, compared with more than 48 euros per tonne in six other European countries (despite costs of disposal not dissimilar). This leaves tax payers and businesses to foot the bill for packaging disposal.

There’s no incentive to design out waste

Over its 20-year span, the obligations have failed to promote more recycled content in packaging or increased the recyclability of trickier packaging materials. There’s no incentive for companies to avoid using material that’s difficult to recycle – such as black plastics or coffee cups.

The mechanism has promoted an over reliance on foreign markets

Over the last 10 years, the amount of recycling we export has grown. The 50% of recycling that was exported in 2017 was assumed to be absolutely recycled. The NAO’s report makes it clear that the checks on these exports are inadequate, and it seems obvious that we are outsourcing a recycling problem. Not only that, exporters have a financial incentive to send this waste abroad via the obligation – receiving more money via a recovery note for materials that have a lower price on the global market.



What can foodservice businesses take from it?

The report proves that the system is outdated and in dire need of reform and makes it clear that reporting of packaging recycling is highly flawed.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom!  Thanks to the public and scientific outcry, DEFRA have reacted (albeit two decades later) and committed to reforming the current system in their waste and resource strategy, due in late 2018.

In the meantime, there are great initiatives like WRAP’s Plastic Pact you can sign up to, and some companies are taking matters into their own hands (Costa, JustEat, and many other businesses removing packaging or reducing it) so there’s an opportunity for other foodservice businesses to do the same.

What can foodservice businesses do to reassure themselves that their waste is being recycled?

  1. Get your packaging suppliers and waste management company in the same room to discuss materials used and where they end up
  2. Engage with staff in the process. Paper Round provide training and launch days to educate staff
  3. Treat waste as a resource to be valued within the circular economy and lead the way to ensure their materials are recycled
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