The latest Defra figures claim that UK businesses and households produced 2.26 million tonnes of plastics packaging waste in 2015.

 But research from waste consultancy Eunomia today (6 March) finds that this number reflects the amount of plastic packaging placed on the market by producers, and that the real amount is much higher – around 3.5 million tonnes.

The real recycling rate in 2015 was not 39% as claimed in official data, says Eunomia, but somewhere between 23%-29%. As such, the UK may have failed to meet its EU plastic packaging recycling targets in each year from 2008-12.

Researchers claim that official calculations are “structurally inclined to overestimate the recycling rate”.

This is because the quantity reported as recycled often reflects the measurement of waste which includes moisture and other contaminants but the amount that companies say they produce is reported when it is clean, dry and free from extraneous material and contaminants.

This challenge is particularly true of recycled material which is exported to other countries, which the majority is, claims Eunomia.

‘Failing system’

Researchers also take aim at the producer responsibility system, which create a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

For the UK, this cost is around €20/tonne, but other European nations have an average for producer responsibility at around €150/tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%.

Official recycling statistics were conducted for Defra by the UK’s largest compliance scheme, Valpak. Eunomia’s report points out that the lower the figure for the packaging placed on the market, the lower the fees that producers have to pay into compliance schemes.

A lower figure also reduces the amount of material that needs to be recycled in order to meet the targets, researchers claim, keeping down the costs of compliance to industry.

“It’s not really surprising to find that the UK’s recycling rate for plastics is not as good as is claimed,” Eunomia chairman Dominic Hogg said.

“The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost, rather than achieving high quality recycling of plastic packaging. The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures.”

He added: “The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”

Under the spotlight

Industry figures have welcomed today’s report for highlighting the lack of transparency in the current system.

“Ensuring accurate figures underpin the PRN system is unfortunately an area not given enough attention in the reform debate,” said ESA’s recycling policy advisor Jakob Rindegren. “And Eunomia’s report is also helpful in putting spotlight on how we measure and report on recycling.”

The Government will publish a new Resources and Waste Strategy later this year, where secondary material markets are expected be promoted, while producers will be incentivised to design products better.

Experts including the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have championed the role that a deposit return scheme and changes to producer responsibility schemes could have in increasing UK recycling rates and reducing the amount of plastics littering the oceans.

Around 110 billion of the 480 billion drinks bottles sold globally in 2016 came from Coca-Cola. In recent times, Coca-Cola’s European branch has had change of mind about plastic bottle deposit schemes, following a campaign coordinated by Greenpeace.

Commenting on Eunomia’s report findings, Greenpeace oceans campaigner Elena Polisano said: “The packaging industry has been claiming very high figures for bottle plastic recycling in their last-ditch attempt to undermine a deposit return scheme.

“This report suggests that their data is misleading wishful thinking at best, concerning an issue where accurate information and open cooperation is urgently required.

“The current system looks very much like a conspiracy against the taxpayer, with industry in control, no transparency and the rest of us paying their bills. No wonder they’re resistant to the changes we need.”

Valpak’s Adrian Hawkes told BBC News there was no evidence of producers deliberately under-reporting plastic production.  “We are confident in our information because it is based on very detailed and comprehensive data representing over 50% of UK packaged goods sales,” he said.

George Ogleby

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie