Plastic taxes and deposits not the sustainability answer, claims circular economy expert

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10 Apr 2018 --- How best to deal with plastic waste is a huge issue within the packaging industry and society at large. Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy at Axion, gives his opinion on deposit return schemes, single-use plastic tax, and explains why he believes that extended producer responsibility schemes are the answer we are looking for.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Richard McKinlay describes Axion as “a circular economy specialist who provide consultancy to a range of public and private sector clients, focusing on resource efficiency and recycling. We are also one of the largest recyclers of plastic from end-of-life vehicles and waste electronics.”

Richard McKinlay believes that plastic packaging recycling has flat-lined. A key reason for this is the economics of recycling post-consumer packaging are very challenging. Another major problem is a lack of understanding among consumers over what can be recycled, alongside a lack of incentives for them to recycle properly.

He explains that the whole point of single-use plastics and packaging is to deliver products to as many people as possible, over as great a distance as possible with as little cost and product waste as possible. Modern packaging serves this purpose well; yet to recycle it successfully, we have to reverse this process and get it back from all the consumers which creates complications.

Deposit Return Schemes
The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) concept hit the UK news headlines at the end of March with Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme in England. Full details are subject to consultation and yet to be decided, including how big the deposit will be. It is expected to cover single-use glass and plastic bottles, and steel and aluminum cans, in a move that is largely welcomed.

Similar schemes in Europe have been successful in achieving high recycling rates for PET bottles, aluminum cans and glass. They encourage users to recycle packaging for which they recover a small deposit and there is no additional cost to consumers.

Norway is a good example of a successfully implemented DRS. In Oslo, it is estimated that 93 percent of all single-use packaging is collected via Infinitum’s 3500 reverse vending machines. Consumers receive approximately 2.5 Krone (0.26) for a two-liter plastic bottle. Overall, Infinitum has a 97 percent hit rate on recycling, including its manual collectors which operate in addition to the DRS.

The DRS will generate very high-quality material for recycling because unlike curbside collections, you can control exactly what is collected. This is especially important when producing food-grade rPET. With material from curbside collections, the food grade PET is mixed with non-food grade PET, which makes it harder to achieve the maximum allowed 5 percent non-food PET.

Richard McKinlay believes that DRSs should increase recycling rates for the materials included in the scheme, most likely PET bottles and aluminum cans. However, these already have a comparatively high recycling rate compared to other packaging, so any increase in overall rates will be marginal at best.

Single-use plastics tax
A tax on single-use plastics is more of a driver to reduce unnecessary packaging items, says McKinlay. This tax could also be used to increase recycling rates if the money goes into setting up new collection and recycling infrastructure. It’s also difficult: putting a tax on all "single-use" plastic is not fair, he believes.

When packaging is necessary, such as for meat, rice, pasta – everyday essentials – it would not be fair to tax this and pass the cost on to the consumer, says McKinlay. This could affect those on low incomes as they have no choice but to pay it. In some cases, plastic packaging is the best option for protecting the product.

Other packaging materials, such as glass or aluminum, do not necessarily have greater environmental benefits: glass, for example, is heavier so transporting it has a higher carbon impact than plastic film.

The single-use plastics tax could be effective on products where there is a viable alternative for consumer use, such as reusable coffee cups. In this case, the consumer can choose to bring a reusable cup and avoid paying the tax; or if they prefer the convenience of not bringing a cup, they can pay the tax, which is then used to pay for the recovery and recycling of the single-use packaging.

Extended Producer Responsibility
McKinlay concludes that both approaches have their merits. They could help improve recycling rates, but not significantly in his view. He believes a more effective solution would be Extended Producer Responsibility schemes that would encourage brands to design for end of life in exchange for reduced compliance fees, and so improve the "recyclability" of their packaging.

He tells FoodIngredientsFirst that “the DRS is good but it will never be collecting massive tonnages of material and the tax on plastic can just be unfair at times, for example of essential consumer items. EPR can be used to encourage the brands, retailers and converters to design for recycling, like a set fee for all packaging and then if you can demonstrate that it’s been designed for future life then perhaps you pay less tax.”

“If you use the money from the taxes to invest in the infrastructure for collecting and sorting of the material, then you will encourage the recycling sector. If you’re also encouraging the brands and converters to use recycled materials, then it will provide a secure market for recycling. One of the biggest problems is when the virgin prices drop below the rate of recycled material and cause recyclers to go bust.”

McKinley is of the opinion that, most importantly, behavioral change from consumers and industry is the key to unlocking economic and environmental benefits for all.

He tells FoodIngredientsFirst: “There needs to be an understanding from the consumer that plastic can have a value, but it needs to be kept clean, and you shouldn’t be putting nappies and dirty food packaging in your recycling – the consumer has to participate in the schemes that are implemented. In the UK, people say that they are happy to use DRSs, but will they actually participate?”

“From the sector as a whole, there needs to be more focus of higher quality sourcing facilities, because we are too reliant on exporting low-quality materials and still classing that as recycling, not knowing what would happen when it reached its destination. There needs to be an appreciation that the whole operation will cost money – nobody will get rich off recycling packaging waste. There need to be economic and legislative drivers from the government to push recycling.”

McKinley also stressed that the role of packaging in fighting food waste must not be forgotten: “Plastic and other packaging types serve a vital function in delivering the food we need. Recycling is not the only issue at hand. The benefits of packaging seemed to be well understood a few years ago but now forgotten with the increased media coverage around plastic pollution. I think if we see plastic-free food aisles we will see a big spike in food waste.”

The battle against plastic waste continues to gain momentum, with the UK joining a growing list of European nations to introduce a deposit-return scheme on plastic and other material containers. UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, also recently confirmed plans to launch a public tax consultation on single-use plastics. Meanwhile, the EU has officially integrated a circular plastic economy approach as part of their 2030 recyclability targets, while Iceland became the first UK supermarket to go plastic-free on all own brand products.

By Joshua Poole

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