15 March 2019

‘Reassessing responsibility for waste’

OPINION: David Newman, special advisor on the circular economy for AI firm Ditto Sustainability and former President of the International Soild Waste Association, gives his views on the Resource and Waste Strategy.

In December, Defra released its Resource and Waste Strategy (“RWS”), the first comprehensive waste legislation strategy proposed since 2007, and about time too…

David Newman

For those of us who have been working in the resource and waste industry for some years now, the ambitious targets have been welcomed with open arms, although with a certain degree of scepticism. If implemented the way it seems to be intended, it is my view that the trajectory for a modern waste system has been outlined by the RWS – bringing the UK into line with European countries that have already been adopting such programmes over the last 25 years.

At the time of writing, we are looking at how we are going to practically achieve some of these targets, through a series of consultations issued on 18 February.

At the front and centre of this strategy, and of this first series of consultations, are the proposed changes to producer responsibility for packaging. The proposal in the RWS is that mandatory full cost Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) will be introduced on packaging in the UK.

This is a huge step forward for the waste sector. For many years, there has been a movement in the industry to campaign in favour of multinational corporations (and indeed all stakeholders in the packaging value chain) taking some of the responsibility for where the waste they produce ultimately ends up. This has been a long-standing debate in the UK and one that many of us imagine will face opposition from certain sections of industry as we head towards the statute books.

Valpak had already put the cat among the pigeons with its report PackFlow 2025 in 2017.  The report underlined how the UK packaging industry has been paying one tenth of what it needs to meet new EU recycling targets under revised EPR – thus paving the way for a ten-fold increase under coming UK legislation.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

EPR is a policy approach under which producers are given significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the disposal or treatment of post-consumer products. EPR is grounded in thinking from the circular economy, and helps to minimise our environmental impact by encouraging producers to find ways to reduce the cost associated with end-of-life products. For example, producers would design products that last longer, are more suitable for upgrades, or are simpler to recycle. EPR therefore encourages a circular economy and is a far more sustainable approach to waste than, for instance, encouraging more recycling.

The problem lies, however, with the multinational producers that oppose this approach to waste. The ten biggest food producers globally are also cited by Greenpeace as being the ten biggest plastic polluters. Meanwhile, Greenpeace have found so called “collected for recycling” plastics from these same companies, originating in the UK, discarded in some of the world’s poorest countries’ open dumps.

The view of multinationals is that the consumers should shoulder the burden of where their waste ends up – whether it’s in a landfill site, an incinerator or in many cases washed up on a beach…and they lay the emphasis on littering and anti-social behaviour, while often ignoring their own role in producing the materials that end up here. In fact, you will find companies that frequently support the “Keep X Tidy” campaigns, uniting in opposing the first Circular Economy Package in the EU, and even today oppose EPR on the grounds that councils may lose some recycling income.

So far, in the UK especially, these corporations have won the debate of who is responsible for waste between the producer and consumer. Although it would seem the tides are starting to turn against them – so what’s next?

Next steps

The plans proposed in the RWS will bring the UK in line with major EU economies where industry contributions to the “Polluter Pays Principle” are as much as ten times those in the UK. Over here, we have been pushing the burden of the costs onto the shoulders of local councils. In monetary terms, it is estimated that EPR on packaging may bring up to £1 billion per annum into the coffers of councils.

The consultation process (which runs until 13 May) will, however, give the producer corporations the opportunity to lobby the government once again on this issue. They will, I’m sure, use all of the power at their disposal to help them reduce or delay EPR. Expect a fight back from the producer industry.

The government will also be trying to reach the targets laid out in the RWS in the backdrop of Brexit, which is likely to make it even more difficult to get a piece of corporate-facing legislation like this through Parliament.

For those of us in favour of EPR and generally supportive of the RWS more broadly, we will continue to argue the benefits of adopting this system. We will see, in the coming months and years, whether in the UK we will finally adopt an approach which will have a tangible difference in reducing our unsustainable waste habits.

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