What the Environment Plan means for recycling

Following the publication of Defra’s long-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan, Peter Clayson, General Manager for Business Development and External Affairs at DS Smith Recycling, looks at the strategy in further detail and discusses whether or not it offers sufficient substance in the current market.

The publication of Defra’s 25-Year Environment Plan was a welcome sign that the government is placing sustainability at the heart of its agenda. The report set out a strategy for safeguarding the UK’s environment, with the aim of creating a cleaner, greener Britain. In brief, the 25-year plan committed to:

  • Zero avoidable waste by 2050
  • Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042
  • Meeting existing waste targets and developing ambitious new milestones
  • Eliminating waste crime and illegal waste sites
  • Delivering a substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour
  • Reducing and preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution

The strategy provided a view of the government’s longer-term plan for tackling climate change – but some of the issues it covers must be addressed more urgently.

Global market pressure for quality

Plastic waste export

75%

of plastic exports from the UK go to Hong Kong and China

The most immediate priority for our industry is undoubtedly China’s recent ban on the import of mixed plastics and papers. The legislation, which came into force earlier in March, is already causing mounting pressure. This must bring back into focus the quality of the materials we collect for recycling, and the collection systems we deploy to recover those recyclables.

Of course, the issue of plastic waste is receiving huge media attention at the moment. According to data released by Greenpeace last December, British companies shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong between 2012 and 2017 – 75% of plastic exports from the UK. With this popular route now under huge pressure, channels for both mixed plastics and mixed papers are limited.

So, while we look to explore new and emerging markets, we must get to the crux of the issue. How do we put an infrastructure in place that enables us to provide high quality recyclables that are an attractive feedstock for reprocessors?

The Chinese ban itself is understandable, as China has received a high quantity of low-quality material in recent years – material which was, quite often, too contaminated to recycle in the UK. DS Smith Recycling’s own campaigning for quality in recycling means that we understand China’s recycling quality drive – but it must be noted that the ban could have severe consequences for recycling infrastructures here in the UK.

Reform and investment

An important part of the Government’s Environment plan is the confirmation of reform to the packaging recovery note scheme (PRNs). PRNs form a key part of the Producer Responsibility Obligations system, showing at the point of reprocessing that businesses covered by the regulations have met their obligations in respect of packaging recycling.

The planned reforms follow findings from Defra’s most recent Post Implementation Review (PIR), which concluded that the PRN scheme should remain our national method for proving and reporting reprocessing rates. While we welcome the announcement of the revisions, we’d like to see more clarity from the government on what changes will be made, alongside a clear timescale for delivery of the reform. However, keeping the production of PRNs at the point that material is reprocessed is central to ensuring transparency – and in driving us to ensure that material collected for recycling can actually be recycled.

It was also refreshing to see a pledge from Government for investment in infrastructure in the 25-year plan. Quality is crucial to maximising resource circularity, so appropriate funding will help to drive an efficient recycling system that can deliver on both quality and quantity.

The investment message has been well received across the industry, especially amid the resource recovery ‘gap’ debate. While we understand the role that energy recovery plays, it’s important to consider its position in the waste hierarchy. Material intended for recycling must be recycled, not sent to energy recovery, and so finding ways to minimise waste and maximise recycling must be our first step. This will help to ensure that recyclable material isn’t incinerated or landfilled.

The case for separate collections

Alongside investment and PRN reforms, we’d like to see the government push further legislation around collection systems. This will be critical as we move towards the principals of reuse and resource efficiency outlined within the Circular Economy Package. With China’s bans giving renewed attention to the importance of recyclate quality, we are keen to see the introduction of mandatory separate collections – especially the separate collections of paper and card, and of food waste.

In its 2016 waste collection consistency framework, WRAP outlined three options for delivering ‘more harmonisation’ among collection systems in English councils. The framework looked at the respective benefits of three options:

  1. A multi-stream recycling collection, encompassing plastics, metals and cartons in one container, glass and card in another, and paper then collected in a separate container. Glass and card would then be loaded into a separate compartment on the collection vehicle.
  1. A two-stream option, which includes the collection of plastics, metals and cartons, and glass in one container, and a separate container for paper and card.
  1. A fully commingled service including plastics, metals, carton, glass, and card.

While the report provided a comprehensive look at how each of these options could be implemented, it failed to make an impact on legislation. In the wake of China’s import ban and the publication of Defra’s report, we believe the time is right for parliament to re-visit this proposal, and focus on options 1 and 2.

A consistent standard across the UK, focusing on a multi- or two-stream solution, would help to remove residents’ confusion and to promote greater recycling. At DS Smith, we would certainly like to see that report built upon, focusing on separate collections of paper from other dry recyclable materials – as this gives us the best opportunity for providing reprocessors with the highest quality papers for recycling.

The way ahead

We’ve seen first-hand the sustainable benefits that legislation can drive. It acts as an enabler, spurring industries to embrace behavioural change, as examples such as the success rate of the landfill tax prove. So, while the 25-year plan offers a statement of intent from the government, it’s important that it is turned into something concrete.

As well as a vision, we need a long-term policy framework that focuses on the UK’s ability to deliver quality materials for recycling to both our domestic and international markets.

Even a cursory glance at Defra’s 25-Year Environment Plan shows that we still have significant ground to cover. Current challenges may prove difficult for the UK’s recycling infrastructures in the short term, but should also be seen as an opportunity to drive change. The report recognises the importance of embracing the principles of reuse and recycling outlined by the Circular Economy Package – something we wholeheartedly agree with. However, it’s clear that we will need firmer policy, consistency, and a commitment to single-stream recycling in order to achieve this.

Government, local authorities, collectors, and reprocessors must ensure they’re working together to drive change. Defra’s plan provides a framework for engendering a more sustainable approach to recycling and waste management, but we need to plan to be effective in the longer-term, and to look beyond knee-jerk political reactions. Defra’s report stands as an ambitious manifesto, but now is the time for action to speak louder than words.

The current situation that we find ourselves in, with China effectively removing millions of tonnes of capacity out of global recycling markets, only underlines the fact that quality must be at the heart of our future plans. You will read lots in the media over the coming weeks about material collected for recycling ending up in landfill or incineration. The challenge presented by China’s stance is real, and will reverberate around all parts of our industry. But we must remember that the position China has taken is rooted in a quest for quality materials. On that, we must learn the lessons for the future sustainability of recycling markets.