Lord Deben: Closed-loop plastic system 'perfectly possible' with revamped policy

Measures outlined in the Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS) could spur progress towards a “completely circular economy” for plastics by forcing businesses to reexamine "vested interests" and financial incentives, the Committee on Climate Change Chairman Lord Deben has argued.

Lord Deben is one of the 12 policy leaders to have given his backing to Policy Connect's new report

Lord Deben is one of the 12 policy leaders to have given his backing to Policy Connect's new report

Speaking at the launch of Policy Connect’s ‘plastic packaging plan’ report in London on Tuesday (12 February), Deben was asked how far along he believes the UK is on its journey to creating a closed-loop system for plastics, in which 100% of plastic packaging is reused, recycled or composted.

Deben argued that bringing about such an economy in the “near future” would be “perfectly possible” – if progress were not being stalled by the “various vested interests” of corporates and local authorities.

“There is a lack of discipline and full-systems thinking within the system,” Deben, who served as Environment Secretary between 1993 and 1997, said.

“Businesses do not link design with the issue of plastic pollution, which is preventing them from ensuring that what is put on the market is relatively easy to recycle.”

Deben’s sentiments come at a time when more than 80 of the world’s largest retailers and food and drink brands – which collectively produce around 80% of all products stocked in British supermarkets – are re-designing their entire packaging portfolios to become 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025, under WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact.

While praising Pact signatories such as Nestle and Unilever, Deben highlighted the fact that such commitments had been made voluntarily, with policymakers having previously “failed” to implement legislation which could lead a cross-industry phase-out of non-recyclable products and packaging.

However, he argued that business interests could soon be “forced to make decisions at all stages” in line with circular economy principles because of the measures outlined in the Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS) – particularly its proposed overhaul of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system.

If the measures set out in the RWS are implemented after the consultation period, producers will be forced to pay full net-costs of disposal of packaging they place on the market – up from just 10% now. Businesses will also be taxed for failing to design recycled content into their plastic products and packaging, and receive tax breaks for using high proportions of recycled plastics or plastic alternatives.

Ministers hope that these policies will move waste up the hierarchy and stimulate secondary markets, as seen in other countries across the world – a shift which Deben believes is “on the horizon”.

“It is very satisfying that some of the actions Government is taking – or hoping to take – are the very ones I tried to convince my cabinet of at the time of when I first introduced the EPR system,” he said.

“I wanted it to be a system whereby money was raised to help local authorities improve the on-the-go waste infrastructure that is so bad in this country. I wanted it to be the case that, if you put hard-to-recycle plastics onto the market, you’d pay more, and if you could prove you’d recycled your easy-to-recycle plastics, you’d pay even less into the system, balancing it that way

Deben’s comments come after an unprecedented number of respondents to a UK Government consultation examining plastic waste called for tax reforms to help companies move away from cradle-to-grave models for plastic use.

Waste management firms are also urging Ministers to implement similar policy changes. SUEZ, for example, has recommended that the Government should extend its existing Producer Responsibility Obligation (PRO) framework and raise the cost of PRNs to accelerate the shift to a circular economy. Currently, PRNs cost around €20 per tonne in the UK, while other European nations have an average cost of around €150 per tonne. 

A circular plan for plastics

A restructure of the EPR system is just one of the 18 measures set out in the Policy Connect report, which has been backed by Deben and a group of 12 other cross-party policy leaders.

Published this week after a six-month inquiry by Policy Connect researchers, the 40-page document calls on Ministers to implement a “bold national policy framework” for plastics, including a 2030 goal of achieving ‘net-zero’ plastic waste export status.

This move, the report claims, would “boost domestic infrastructure investment, innovation and green jobs” while reducing the UK’s marine waste footprint, fostering a sense of pride among the British public and, ultimately, spurring a nationwide shift towards circular economy models.

The report comes at a time when around 48% of all packaging recovery note (PRN) purchases by UK-based companies are believed to be made abroad, with recent research from the National Audit Office (NAO) concluding that packaging exports have increased six-fold since 2002 to reach £50m in 2017.

The UK currently has just one-third of the infrastructure needed to process 100% of its own recyclable waste, according to Policy Connect. The think tank argues that pressure on existing facilities is only set to increase as more developing nations implement recycling market closures or sanctions – unless “urgent” action is taken by policymakers.

In a bid to spur action on the issue, businesses such as Princes and Danone have pledged to reduce their reliance on export PRNs, while a group of MPs have begun urging policymakers to implement laws which stop the UK from “passing the plastic buck” to the world’s poorest communities.

But the challenge will not be solved unless these “informal conversations” and “voluntary” business actions are unified and “made the new normal”, Policy Connect’s plastics research fellow Jacob Ainscough warned at the report launch event.

“To be at the forefront of combatting the increasing environmental threat posed by plastics, we believe policy changes will be necessary,” Ainscough said.

“Things are moving in the right direction, but we need to be dealing with our plastic here – not shipping it overseas where we don’t know what happens to it or what carbon emissions are associated with its transportation. If we can get an increase in the market for recycled material, what should prohibit us from having a thriving and innovative recycling community here in the UK?”

Sarah George


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