Claims by the Local Government Association (LGA) that a “smorgasbord” of plastics in packaging means that just a third of household collected plastics can be recycled, have been countered by the recycling sector.
Releasing an analysis of plastics packaging on Saturday, the Association called for support from producers to tackle the issue or for the government to step in to help councils.
The LGA analysis comes as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs prepares the Resources and Waste Strategy, with councils lobbying hard for more funding from the PRN system to go to them.
Its analysis, said the LGA, suggests that just a third of plastic used by households is able to be recycled because of the different plastics used – the claims made national media headlines over the weekend with the Daily Mail implying it was not worth householders putting plastics in the recycling bin.
Now the announcement has led to concerns from some in the sector that the news could be damaging to recycling, while others have highlighted a number of perceived “inaccuracies” in the LGA’s claims.
WRAP spoke today of the importance of maintaining the public’s confidence in recycling and Paul Vanston, chief executive of packaging industry organisation, INCPEN, defended the work being done by the packaging sector.
According to the LGA, 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays are used by households a year but just 169,145 tonnes of this waste is able to be recycled. However, one sector expert suggested to letsrecycle.com that the rate of 169,145 tonnes may well be the rate of waste collected for recycling, rather than waste capable of being recycled.
The LGA said that its analysis was based on work done by plastics recycling group Recoup.
Councils, said the LGA, have done “all they can” but that “the inclusion of challenging polymers in packaging is making it extremely difficult”.
Cllr Judith Blake, LGA Environment spokesperson, said: “We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this from entering the environment for years. That needs to happen urgently, but the government should now consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, in order to increase recycling.”
The councillor, who is leader of Leeds city council, demanded an “an industry-wide, collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment. But if industry won’t help us get there, then the government should step in to help councils ensure we can preserve our environment for generations to come.”
In its announcement LGA also gave a list of five “everyday packages” that “use unrecyclable plastic”, which it alleged included margarine and ice cream tubs; microwave meal and meat packaging; fruit and vegetable punnets; yoghurt pots; and bakery goods trays.
One sector expert said the findings were “fundamentally incorrect”. He explained that three sorting solutions for black plastic packaging – used in microwave meal and meat packaging – are being taken forward. While increasing numbers of punnets are becoming simpler to recycle.
He also explained that polypropylene in magarine and ice cream tubs – which LGA said is “extremely difficult to recycle” – is in fact the highest value and most recyclable element of the pot and tray fraction.
In response, one local government expert raised concerns that the announcement could be damaging to council recycling, as well as undermining new projects. He referenced Viridor’s scheme with M&S to add black plastics to the coloured plastics stream already recycled, announced earlier this year, as an example (see letsrecycle.com story).
Peter Maddox, director, WRAP UK emphasised the importance of maintaining the public’s “confidence in recycling” and highlighted the “great progress” made by the industry.
“Most of the plastic packaging we use is recyclable. More than three quarters of councils collect pots, tubs and trays, and as a nation we are recycling more than ever,” he said.
“Yes, there are challenges with some of the more complex materials being used in plastic packaging and this is what we are addressing through the UK Plastics Pact, which was launched 100 days ago. Members and supporters have committed, amongst other things, to eliminate all unnecessary and problematic plastic packaging and to making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
“Success depends on businesses, governments, local authorities working together to transform the plastics system in the UK,” added Mr Maddox.
In terms of the call to producers, Paul Vanston, chief executive of packaging industry organisation, INCPEN, defended the work being done by the packaging sector.
He said: “Forward-thinking organisations are demonstrating leadership through their own compromises to unlock advancements on recycling challenging materials, supporting that councils receive more funding, and contributing at senior levels to national change programmes including the UK Plastics Pact, Courtauld 2025, and extended producer responsibility reforms.”
And, Mr Vanston pointed to consistent collections as a way of achieving higher levels of recycling. “If collections consistency, and unambiguous consumer labelling, can happen simultaneously by around 2023, that’s a goal worth aiming for, and allows five years to get it done.
“Consistency of councils’ packaging recycling collection services is a simultaneous, complementary and necessary aspect of the joint whole-system approach that we wish the LGA to work on with us.”Paul Vanston
“Consistency of councils’ packaging recycling collection services is a simultaneous, complementary and necessary aspect of the joint whole-system approach that we wish the LGA to work on with us.”
Mr Vanston also highlighted his recent meetings with local government representatives to find solutions and called for greater collaboration between LGA and INCPEN.
On the retail side, Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability for trade association, British Retail Consortium, pointed to the investment being made by industry to tackle packaging recyclability.
“Retailers recognise how important it is to their customers to tackle plastic packaging, both removing it where possible and ensuring all packaging is recyclable,” he said. There’s some packaging that is more difficult to make recyclable but retailers are investing heavily with their suppliers to find alternatives and we are confident we will see even more progress over the next year.
“We recognise the important role that local government plays in recycling and will work with them and consumers to increase the consistency in packaging that is recycled.”