Wasted opportunities

Forum for the Future has criticised UK recycling policy, calling for a rethink in a recent report

Although the recycling of packaging in the UK has increased by around 10% since 2000, the UK is still lagging behind most European countries. Having consulted with government, packaging manufacturers, retailers and consumers, Forum for the Future has concluded that the basic problem is that government still views waste as an 'end of pipe' issue.

Until the government develops a vision of how packaging should be managed in a sustainable resource economy, its policy will not deliver real improvements in recycling, or drive the necessary transition from waste management to sustainable resource management. Government policy remains focused on targets set by the EU Packaging Directive, and while the report's authors say that progress towards these targets is vital, they believe it is equally important to develop a framework to promote a more sustainable packaging industry.

Recent report Wasted Opportunities found that the introduction of weight-based targets for local authorities has led to a bias towards the recycling of heavy materials for which there are inadequate UK markets, such as glass and newspaper. It cites a growing green-glass bottle mountain and insufficient demand for recycled green glass, with one in three recovered green-glass bottles (100,000 tonnes) being exported in 2003.

At the same time, the majority of aluminium cans ended up in landfill, forcing the UK aluminium recycling industry to import from continental Europe. Producing a can from virgin resources takes twenty times more energy than producing a can from recycled aluminium.

Options for government

The report argues that government, both central and local, could quickly and easily make sustainable options more attractive. The Landfill Tax could be reformed into a waste disposal tax that makes landfill and incineration the most expensive disposal options. Tax on landfill could be raised by at least £6 per tonne per year, aiming to reach tax levels of progressive European countries by 2008 (at least £35/tonne). This should be followed by the introduction of a tax on incineration. The report also stressed the importance of the Treasury ring-fencing and re-investing the proceeds of the waste disposal tax in waste reduction, re-use and recycling technologies and infrastructure.

With other countries already managing to recycle up to 60% of municipal waste, Wasted Opportunities seeks more ambitious targets for local authorities in the UK: 50% by 2010 and 70% by 2015. Targets should take into account material type, rather than just weight, to fully exploit the potential value from recycling. They should be determined through a cost-benefit analysis of social, economic and environmental factors. The UK government should follow the example of other European countries, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden and introduce landfill bans for those materials such as vegetable matter, glass, metals, paper and cardboard which can be composted or recycled, and where an infrastructure is in place or can be developed within five years The report argues that local authorities should be given the power to introduce variable charging of households, reflecting the waste generated and the efforts people make to recycle. It presents a range of options for DEFRA, ODPM and the Local Government Association: council tax discount schemes, rewards for recycling, and charging households a fixed rate per bin. Such schemes are already common practice in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden and provide a real incentive for households to reduce and recycle.

The RDAs' role

But the onus is not only upon central and local government. The regional development agencies can play a key role, promoting the move towards sustainable business clusters, which encourage businesses to work together on resource efficiency including recycling and re-use.

This includes continued support for external organisations such as the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme and Urban Mines, which offer direct support to businesses to work together on resource efficiency measures.

Regional bodies should also encourage investment in infrastructure, such as regional collection points for certain materials, and encourage local recycling industries and markets through the regional economic strategy. This can prevent materials from being transported long distances or exported for processing. Packaging producers need to shift their business model towards providing a sustainable packaging service. Packaging design must be based on robust sustainability principles, such as the Natural Step system or the product design criteria by Biothinking.

This will involve the production of re-usable and/or recyclable packaging while aiming to reduce the material input and maximise the use of renewable resources and recycled materials. It requires partnerships with key stakeholders, such as local authorities, retailers, and the media. The application of the producer responsibility principle should also lead to packaging producers taking a larger share of recycling and waste management costs than they do at present.

Introducing tried and tested schemes

The current PRN system does not create sufficient and reliable income for the required investment in recycling reduction, re-use and recycling infrastructure. The report argues that the government should consider the introduction of schemes tried and tested elsewhere, such as the packaging deposits scheme adopted in Germany, a packaging tax adopted in Belgium, or Green Dot schemes familiar to France, Spain and Sweden. Importantly, the income from any such scheme needs to be ring-fenced and re-invested in waste reduction, re-use, and recycling infrastructure.

Further along the supply chain, food and drink manufacturers and retailers could develop clearer policies on the use and promotion of sustainable packaging. This would need to be supported with good communication, for example with printed messages on packaging and retailers rewarding customers for re-use or recycling.

Recycling does need to become more convenient. The Household and Waste Recycling Act will commit local authorities to providing every household in England with a separate collection of at least two types of recyclable materials by 2010. This is a step in the right direction but not a big enough one: all local authorities should provide separate collection of dry recyclables by 2010 and introduce doorstep collection of organic waste where home composting is not feasible. In a survey by the Environment Agency in 2002, nine out of ten people claimed that they would be very likely to sort rubbish for recycling if the local council provided containers.

Steps to make recycling easier need to be accompanied by a shift in the consumer mindset. The government should build on the awareness-raising work done by WRAP with a long-term programme to change the public view of waste from 'out of sight out of mind' to 'I can do my bit to stop wasting resources'.

Alongside awareness campaigns, consumers can be encouraged with the carrot and the stick - the Netherlands runs a reward card system for good waste management, for instance, while the London Borough of Barnet has introduced compulsory kerbside collection and said it will fine households that consistently fail to comply. Also, the recycling industry and government need to improve the current perception of recycled products, often unfairly seen as inferior, through quality standards and labels to promote people's confidence.

Potential backlash

However, Wasted Opportunities warns that unless the priority is recycling materials that provide the greatest benefit in social, environmental and economic terms, there could be a serious backlash against all recycling. This would be fuelled by mixed messages and increasingly sceptical media coverage focusing on the limits of recycling and would undermine the work of any awareness-raising campaign. To avoid such a backlash, it is essential to develop a shared understanding among key stakeholders, including the public, of the benefits of recycling different materials and the role of recycling in sustainable resource management.

For this to happen, government needs to take the lead. It has to start from a shared vision of what a sustainable packaging system looks like, developed through stakeholder dialogue and supported by scientific research. This will help to provide a much clearer framework for policymakers.

With a compelling vision and concerted action, the UK can quickly improve upon its current poor performance on recycling.


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