A new Greenpeace investigation has revealed that packaging, supermarket and food and drink trade associations urged Defra Minister Therese Coffey to oppose new “polluter pays” proposals, which would pass more of the costs of managing packaging waste onto companies that produce the goods.

Letters released under Freedom of Information (FOI), dated from September 2016 and February 2017, highlight trade bodies on behalf of brands such as McDonald’s and Starbucks arguing that more rigid extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes would increase their costs with “no net environmental benefit”.

As things stand, British firms pay a fraction of the costs of their French of German counterparts to dispose of the packaging they put on the market. It is the UK taxpayer that ends up footing most of the bill, insists Greenpeace.

Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner Tisha Brown said: “The packaging industry will come up with endless excuses for why any policy which involves them taking more responsibility for the problems their products cause won’t work, but their letters to Defra show their real reasoning quite clearly.

“They’re getting away with passing their costs onto the taxpayer, and they don’t want that to change.”

Flagging rates

The UK’s recycling rates are flagging, with experts concerned the country could miss its EU agreed target of 50% by 2020. Greenpeace has heard from industry figures that the current system is “not fit for purpose” to achieve higher packaging recycling targets beyond this period.

New EU proposals would make brands pay more if their products are harder to recycle. But Minister Coffey has suggested that the rules should be “guidance only”, warning against a rigid EPR system at a Brussels meeting in December 2016.

The British Retail Consortium, the British Soft Drinks Association, the Food and Drink Federation, the Packaging Federation and packaging trade body Incpen approved this stance in a letter to Coffey.

“Through our respective European Associations we will endeavour to encourage the industry in some other key member states to lobby for a similar approach,” the letter read.

In an attempt to boost recycling rates, the UK Government is exploring the potential to follow the lead of Scotland by introducing a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers. The scheme could mirror parallel deposit return projects in Scandinavian countries such as Norway, where recycling rates of containers are now above 95%.

But trade bodies have warned that a deposit return scheme “would seriously undermine the viability of current kerbside recycling schemes, tackle only a small proportion of littered items, impose high costs and inconvenience on consumers, and increase environmental impact”.

Changing tide 

There are signs however, that amid growing pressure from environmental groups, opposition to a national deposit return scheme is starting to crumble.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, told Greenpeace: “As an industry, we are open to exploring whether a properly considered deposit return scheme could be a part of an overall solution and we are ready to work with government and others on this.”

Coca-Cola, a member of three of the associations, reversed its initial opposition to the measures in February. A spokeswoman said: “Whilst we are a member of many trade bodies, these organisations have to reflect the view of their many members and we are aware our view on DRS is different to that of others in the industry.”

The circular economy package’s target of recycling 65% of all waste by 2030 has been described by Coffey as “too high to be achievable”.

Responding to the Greenpeace investigation, a Defra spokesman said: “We remain fully engaged in the negotiations on the EU Circular Economy Package and continue to liaise with industry and NGOs on a regular basis.”

‘Last chance’

Meanwhile, leaked documents from earlier this summer revealed the European Council had been trying to delay the introduction of food waste targets until a methodology has been set.

A European Parliament deal in March agreed to halve food waste from farm-to-fork across the continent by 2030. But green campaigners insist that the EU Council will attempt to derail the targets in negotiations at the end of this month.

Sources suggest that the UK is among the countries holding back the Council’s position on setting waste reduction targets. Leaked documents show that the EU Council has also been trying to remove mention of halving food waste farm to fork, by to remove pre-retail food waste from the specific target.

In a statement yesterday, a campaign coalition including environmental groups Feedback and This is Rubbish urgently called on UK and EU policymakers to stop blocking the food waste targets.

This Is Rubbish EU campaigns manager Martin Bowman said: “This is the last chance for EU food waste targets, and the alternative will be weak and fragmented action by separate member states.

“It would be a tragedy if the EU were to waste this historic opportunity to halve EU food waste – and all the associated benefits for EU carbon emissions, land and water resources, food security, and efficiency savings.”

George Ogleby

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