Plastics now a ‘competitive issue’ for business, CIWM chief warns

EXCLUSIVE: Eliminating unnecessary uses of plastic from production and supply chains is quickly becoming a "competitive issue" for businesses, with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management's (CIWM) chief executive Dr Colin Church urging companies not to wait for legislation.

Speaking exclusively to edie, CIWM’s chief executive Colin Church, who also chairs the Green Alliance’s Circular Economy Taskforce, noted that recent EU and UK regulatory announcements had meshed with various public and policy awareness shifts to create a “perfect storm” to act on plastic pollution.

Since the start of the year, both the UK Government and the European Union (EU) have unveiled sweeping strategies that aim to phase-out use of certain types of plastic by 2030 – for the EU – and 2042 for the UK.

The strategies reflect the raised public awareness on plastic pollution, largely driven by the Blue Planet II television series. While retailers and brands have pledged or reiterated varying levels of commitment to reduce the amount of plastic they use, Church urged companies to “move sooner” to stop consumer backlash.

“People who have nothing to do with the sector are now discussing how to reduce plastic use in daily lives,” Church told edie. “If you have that kind of plastic in your business, you need to look very, very urgently to move out of it, or you’ll start to feel consumers giving you very direct feedback. I would be surprised if consumer pressure is resistible for much longer at all.

“Demonstrating that you are serious and demonstrating that you are making moves is a competitive issue. Taking action on this is now a competitive issue as well as a moral and ethical issue. The early 2030s are probably just about acceptable in the public domain for a complete phase-out, but businesses should be looking at how they make some of their moves sooner.”

Import ban

Church, a former director of environmental quality at Defra, is currently chairing the Green Alliance’s Circular Economy Taskforce, a business group and policy forum aiming to champion resource efficiency in the UK.

While the EU is lobbying for a 2030 phase-out date, aligned to its Circular Economy Package, the UK has set a 2042 deadline to eliminate avoidable plastic waste. While Church noted that Brexit is unlikely to impact trade opportunities for UK businesses using plastic – both parties expect the Package to apply during the Brexit transition phase at the very least – producers are likely to be impacted by policy changes further afield.

The UK recycles just 38% of its plastic packaging, while it ships more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China every year. Last summer, the Chinese Government agreed to ban imports of 24 types of plastic waste and mixed paper waste. The move, which came into effect on 1 January 2018, was designed to boost the company’s green credentials, including reducing emissions from its waste treatment sector.

The import ban led to a lot of media hysterics over more waste being sent to incineration, and although organisations like the Environmental Services Association (ESA) – members of which include Biffa, Suez and Veolia – claim reaction to the ban is nowhere near as dramatic, it does create issues over low-quality waste streams which are unlikely to find new markets to be treated.

Collaborative commitment

According to Church, the China import ban was another element of the “perfect storm” that businesses are now faced with to reduce their reliance on plastic waste. Despite his claims that plastics have become a competitive issue, Church felt the collaboration would enable businesses to help tackle low-quality materials that appear across numerous supply chains.

“There is a lot of work that can be shared, as its pre-competitive, that’s not going to get competition on your neck. That would help understand what some of the issues and solutions are,” Church said.

“Supply chain conversations can be cooperative; innovations will give companies an edge and its getting more complicated, but there’s space for companies to work together. Companies need to simplify plastics supply chains, find decent alternatives and simplify the packaging they are using. There has to be a focus on readily and commercially recyclable materials.”

One area for collaboration highlighted by Church was the Courtauld 2025 Commitment, which covers 95% of the UK food retail market. Organised by WRAP, Courtauld 2025 provides signatories with a 10-year time period to achieve a 20% reduction in waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Policy changes

Church also pointed to the anticipated waste and resource strategy, set to be released later this year by the Government. The strategy will outline ambitions for the UK to become a “zero avoidable waste economy”, increase recycling, reuse and remanufacturing levels and extend producer responsibility schemes by 2050.

The latter amendment is viewed by many businesses as a key policy reform to create higher-quality materials across value chains. The Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs) system creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled.

However, current PRN purchases average around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average of around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK business currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%.

“Everyone seems to believe that PROs will form a substantial part of the resource and waste strategy,” Church added. “We haven’t seen the final text, but the Circular Economy Package is likely to require changes to PROs anyway, because of the greater degree of cost sharing with producers. I’d expect something substantial in the strategy and see the changes happening before 2020.”

Matt Mace

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