With increasing pressure on UK household recycling rates – which dropped from 44.9% in 2014 to 44.3% in 2015 –  Iain Ferguson bemoaned the lack of market drivers to reduce consumer waste levels of packaging at the Resourcing the Future conference in London yesterday (27 June).

Ferguson said that policymakers and waste management firms must work in closer proximity with the retail industry to bridge the gap between distribution and recovery of products.

“The gap is dependent on the consumer choosing to do the right thing and it depends on altruism, peer pressure and environmentalism,” he said. “There’s no market driver for the consumer to put our packaging into your recycling system. That creates a gap between the brand owners and the retailers and you, and that gap needs to be filled somehow.”

Your system, your rules

Ferguson, who chairs an industry group formed to tackle key issues on the recyclability of packaging, said that industry laggards were able to stall circular economy progress in the retail sector because no fiscal incentives exist to reward labelling, best practice or to penalise bad design.

In regards to labelling, some brands and retailers have shunned the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) scheme developed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) in partnership with WRAP which seeks to make it easier for consumers to know what packaging is recyclable. Ferguson noted that change is unlikely to come from within, because “it costs us money to make packaging easy to recycle”.

He referenced a recent report which from the Recycling Association which singled out specific packaging examples such as Pringles tubes and Lucozade Sport bottles as “villains” of the recycling world. Pringles packaging – composed of a metal base, plastic cap, metal tear-off lid, and foil-lined cardboard sleeve – was said to be a particular “nightmare” for recycling machines.

According to Ferguson, rather than pointing the finger at bad practice, the waste management industry should look to force brands and retailers to step up their game by outlining the improvements needed on packaging.

“The material selection we use is dependent on the materials that you accept, because you own the recycling system – you decide what goes in it, not us,” he said.

“It’s your system… you tell them you don’t want it and find a way of solving it. It’s better to tell Pringles what you want them to do rather than say, “this is a problem”. The answer should be ‘this is a problem, but you should do this instead’, and then apply some pressure on them in that way.”

Value chain communication

The UK’s lacklustre approach to transitioning to a circular economy was emphasised by recent Co-op research which found that two-thirds of all recyclable consumer packaging in the UK ends up in landfill or being sent to incineration. The Co-op has led efforts within the retail industry to improve package recycling. Co-op members last month voted in favour of a long-term ambition for 100% of its product packaging to be recyclable, with an immediate target of 80% by 2020 already in place.

The retailer has also previously looked at how much of its packaging was recyclable by weight, meaning that glass packaging contributed more to performance than lighter, plastic packaging. It now measures by product line, which means, for example, that a glass bottle and a plastic tray are seen equally. This reflects the concerns of customers and gives a clearer view of where efforts need to be focused, Ferguson claimed.

The environment manager said that the waste management sector must leverage its own influence to improve recycling through better communication with householders. He noted the confusion caused by a lack of clear messaging, highlighting, for example, the 14 different messages that exist for packaging on pots, tubs and trays.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” he said. “Now that we’ve got widely recyclable pots and trays, it would be very simple to align our messages to go out to residents about recycling. So, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve still got work to do on material selection and combinations, but we’ve got to work together to get the messaging right for customers and residents. Communication and discussion along the waste value chain is essential.”

George Ogleby

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