MPs heard evidence last week (3 July) from retailers and the packaging industry as they consider changes that can be made to plastic food and drink packaging to aid recycling.
The viability of compostable packaging dominated discussions at an evidence session of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week, with much discussion of the need for a clearer labelling system to prevent materials contaminating conventional recycling.
Evidence was presented by Andy Sweetman, Marketing Manager, Packaging & Sustainability at the Bio-based and Biogradable Industries Association, Barry Turner, Plastic & Flexible Packaging Group Manager with the British Plastics Federation and Nick Brown, Head of Sustainability at Coca Cola European Partners.
Discussing the need for improvements to current labelling methods for recycling, Mr Sweetman said: “Whether its mandatory or voluntary I don’t really care. What I want to see is a harmonised labelling system that we can all in our industries adhere to and allows us to make that differentiation effectively.”
He also argued that the use of compostable packaging should be focused on areas where there are high levels of contamination, such as sweet wrappers or coffee capsules. He suggested that the packaging would mean these products could be disposed of in food waste bins.
Mr Turner was challenged by the committee on his claim that technological advances – such as apps used by the public or new processes at recycling centres – would allow the industry to tackle contamination and that these innovations could be a “fall back” if the industry did not manage to produce new labelling standards.
Dr Caroline Johnson, Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, said these changes would not happen “overnight” and in the meantime recycling information should be clearly placed on packaging.
Mr Turner also accepted that the Green Dot system was flawed. The Green Dot shows that a company has complied with packaging waste legislation but is often claim that consumers mistake this to mean that packaging is recyclable.
Mr Brown expressed Coca Cola’s support for an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for glass and HDPE in the UK, rather than a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), citing hygiene and safety concerns.
He said: “We think that the best way of improving recycling of glass and HDPE is through the household schemes with a properly funded EPR scheme.”
The EFRA committee also heard evidence from retailers. The MPs questioned Karen Graley, Packaging and Reprographics Manager at Waitrose, Stuart Lendrum, Head of Packaging for Iceland and Robin Clark, Director of Business Partnerships at Just Eat.
All discussed their trials of plastic packaging alternatives, from customers bringing their own containers for food at a Waitrose store in Oxford to seaweed sauce sachets trialled by Just Eat – which they say 92% of customers wanted to use again.
Mr Clarke of Just Eat explained that the business was staying away from compostable packaging because the infrastructure was not in place to deal with it.
“We have too big a range of materials and that makes whatever we do with them really complex,” he said.
Mr Clarke said Just Eat was working on “dealing with contamination risks and making the next stage of the process economically viable”.
Chair of the committee, Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, told the retailers to be mindful of overestimating the impact they were having.
He said: “In the retail industry you have just got to be careful that you are not accidentally promoting something as compostable or recyclable but in the end it doesn’t really happen.
“We are ticking the box, we feel better, but is it actually happening?”