Ministers must not let our recycling efforts be wasted

Written by: Eve Preston | Published:

Despite Parliament being in recess and government slowing down over the summer, the war on waste has not slowed down.

We have seen the public, local government and a government watchdog all arrive at a shared conclusion that government must do more to tackle the recycling problem head on – be it additional investment in infrastructure, tighter compliance reporting or tax incentives.

First, two reports were published which highlighted the country’s inability to deal domestically with the significant amount of the plastic waste sent to recycling; and most recently, the Treasury published its summary response to its ‘Tackling the plastic problem’ consultation, indicating the likely direction of travel government will take when Parliament resumes in September.

As the pressure continues to mount, there are signs the legislators may be about to undertake long overdue steps to tackle the growing waste challenge.

Is our recycling being recycled?

As Parliament broke for summer recess at the end of July, the National Audit Office’s report – which argued that the UK’s recycling rate was being overestimated – begged the question of whether our recycling efforts are worthwhile or simply ‘going to waste’.

While figures suggest that the UK’s recycling rate has more than doubled since 1998, from 31% to 64% in 2017 – significantly above the current EU target of 55% – over half of the packaging reported as being recycled is being processed abroad.

This is because the UK lacks the appropriate infrastructure to recycle plastic waste at its source, here on our own shores. As a result, since 2002, the amount of packaging waste exported to countries such as Turkey and China has increased six-fold.

When it arrives, rather than being processed it is often incinerated or sent to landfill, with inadequate reporting arrangements in many of these countries only exacerbating the issue.

These distorted figures also make it difficult for government to properly assess the impact of its policies and the extent to which it has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or to recycle. This means government has a very little evidence base to inform future policy.

The report also suggests that the UK is essentially at the mercy of other countries to help meet its recycling targets, which creates real risks. If other countries follow China, for example, in banning the importation of overseas waste, the UK could find itself with nowhere to turn.

Instead, government should focus on building capacity domestically and investing more money in developing robust and sustainable recycling and waste management infrastructure.

Local government warns of current failings

The UK’s ineffective recycling infrastructure and the need for government to do more was further highlighted by the Local Government Association (LGA) report which revealed that only one third of the plastic food containers currently used in the UK can be recycled.

This demonstrates two key challenges. First, it suggests that the Government’s policies have had little effect on manufacturers, in terms of prompting them to change the “smorgasbord” of unrecyclable plastics still used to package products.

Secondly, it underlines the need for a more sophisticated processing system in the UK to enable the separation of recyclable plastics from unrecyclable and contaminated products – making sure that those products that can be recycled are actually recycled.

To address this, the LGA has called on government to introduce a ban on “low grade” plastics, which are particularly hard to recycle and are most commonly single-use.

Time government to act

With evidence mounting and public appetite for a more robust approach being reinforced through the record-breaking 162,000 responses to the Treasury’s consultation, pressure on government is growing.

The responses demonstrated strong public support for a tax regime aimed at reducing single-use plastics. Commenting on this, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said that government will consider some of the most promising policies “in more depth”, including using taxes to ensure the right incentives are in place.

Mr Hammond indicated that such policies will be included in the Autumn Budget, and developed through the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, due in the autumn.

Ultimately, reducing plastics and packaging waste and using resources more efficiently is central to achieving the government’s objectives of securing a “cleaner, greener future” for the country.

It is time for government to put its money where its mouth is and take long overdue steps to reform and invest in the recycling and waste management infrastructure to tackle the problems domestically; to strengthen compliance and reporting mechanisms; and to implement policies that lead to real behavioural change.

However, with the deadline looming for the conclusion of Article 50 negotiations, it remains to be seen whether government has the bandwidth to do both.

What is clear is that with ever-mounting pressure to act, these issues will be at the forefront of Michael Gove and other ministers’ minds, and at the top of their desks, as they return to Whitehall.

Eve Preston is account manager at public relations agency PLMR

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