Packaging Waste Co-Operation

iain-ferguson-coopIain Ferguson, environment manager at the Co-operative, says we need a common approach when it comes to what can and what can’t be recycled… it all seems simple on the face of it, but it’s more complicated than that!


coop-bag-feetThe Co-op recently published the “Tipping Point” report, which pointed out that only one third of plastic packaging on consumer goods put on the UK market gets recycled. This is a shocking waste of resources, which needs to be addressed. Finding a way through the mired complexities of packaging design and packaging recyclability is not easy, but we do need to persevere.

There are two simple concepts that can be established to start with that will help in moving forward:

  1. Brand owners and retailers are responsible for what they put on the market. If they want their packaging to be recyclable, they need to take account of what local authorities collect.
  2. Local authorities own the household waste management system and they therefore decide what is accepted.

This all seems simple enough on the face of it. However, it’s more complicated than those simple and logical statements suggest. We have around 10 major retailers and a relatively small number of major brands that are responsible for the vast majority of packaging placed on the market. These retailers and brands operate across all four UK administrations, plus the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Some will also operate in other European countries. For retailers, that is complicated enough; as an illustration, just consider the different rules on carrier bags that we have – basically three different sets of rules. Now extend that complexity to 391 local authorities instead of four plus two administrations.

It’s OK for some materials – glass, cans, card and plastic bottles are fairly straightforward. But when we get to plastic pots, tubs and trays, the situation becomes incredibly complex. We have just reached 75 percent of local authorities (296) collecting plastic pots, tubs and trays. A significant milestone; we are over the threshold to trigger “widely recycled” under OPRL labelling. However, within this 296, there are 32 local authorities with restrictions on what can be included, and those 32 don’t even agree with each other on what the restrictions should be. There are nine restriction regimes in England, two in Scotland and one in Wales making 12 in total (none in Northern Ireland).

This situation makes it difficult for retailers and brands to navigate what materials to use for packaging and how to design it. It also makes it difficult for OPRL to become a simple “YES/NO” system that would reduce consumer confusion, and it’s consumer confusion that reduces recycling quantity and quality.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to local authority representatives through CIWM and LARAC, talking to RECOUP and OPRL to try to get to a point at which we can get a coherent approach to selecting the right packaging. And that is the problem; I’ve spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people!

If local authorities could agree on a common position on what they can recycle, it would be a lot simpler for retailers and brands to align, as far as possible, with that position, and it would make labelling for recyclability much more straightforward. It would also make it easier for packaging manufacturers to engage with the system to address the barriers to their products being recyclable.

Please be assured, I am on your side, but we do need a more common approach. We would be keen to work with CIWM and LARAC on this. Now, about those carrier bag rules…

Iain has been with the Co-op for 27 years and is environment manager, delivering initiatives such as closing the loop on office paper recycling to make bathroom tissue and kitchen roll, and EN 13432 certified carrier bags to support local authority food waste collections. Iain is passionate about improving packaging recyclability and alongside his role, he is trustee of RECOUP and chairs the Rationalisation of Packaging working group.


Views expressed in the comments below are those of the users and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIWM.
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  1. Local authorities are essentially middle men between producers, consumers & reprocessors. We can only collect what the reprocessors want – so surely the easy answer is for producers and reprocessors to agree what products can be recycled and go from there? LA’s/their contractors will then have consistent products to collect & sell on to the reporcessors – who will have a stable market for their resulting product. It’s not a complex theory, but the reality of it is that no-one wants to give up their commercial advantage by having a standardised product and LA’s are stuck in the middle with unpredictable markets and having to provide a consistent service to their customers.

    • We can’t ignore the level of confusion generated by the type of message LA’s produce when attempting to inform householders of what can and can’t be recycled. And it goes beyond the old “caps on, caps off” debate (which by the way most, if not all, recyclers would want with their plastic bottles – simply squash the bottle before placing the lid back and problem solved). Several local authorities refer to plastic numbers (1, 2, 3…) when it is known that these symbols are NOT about recyclability, but simply an identification code. Others will say things like “no” to polystyrene, but ”yes” to yoghurt pots, when the majority of yoghurt pots are made of polystyrene (what they meant was “expanded polystyrene”). And the list goes on… We all have a part to play so it is time we focus on what is under our control and act on it. There is an organisation called WRAP with plenty of information ready available to help with that.

  2. I have been saying just this for long enough to such an extent that when attending the Recoup conference this year it was suggested that I didn’t raise this as an issue yet again as it was becoming “old hat”. “Old hat” it might be but the consumer is left scratching under that “old hat” to know just what he or she can recycle. There are far too many mixed messages and off course each Local authority has a different scheme in place. So despite what Kate says in that it is the poor Local Authority that is stuck in the middle it would perhaps be useful if they got together through LARAC to be consistent one with another.

  3. WRAP have recently published Recycling Guidelines – a consolidated list of what can and can’t be collected for recycling with broad consensus reached from reprocessors, waste management and local authorities. No mean feat! Check it out at It’s important that it is not just a document on a website though. Action is needed to roll them out which many readers can help with.

    This is all part of the Consistency Programme ( that has been set up to tackle a number of the issues raised. It is a whole supply chain approach and includes action on packaging formats.

  4. It is unfair to expect all Local Authorities to have to collect and recycle the same streams. Many rural Authorities find themselves long distances from reprocessors making forced recycling uneconomical and senseless in times of budget cuts. If consistency is required then there should be geographical consistency in reprocessing facilities. A laughable and unrealistic concept.

  5. At Colour Tone Masterbatch we applaud Iain Ferguson for putting this complex issue into the public view.
    Having taken part in trials and pilot schemes on this subject, we would like to see this issue being approached from a different perspective.
    We believe that all plastic packaging should be manufactured from material that can be recycled using the automatic sorting processes that many waste processors have in place. If all the collected waste was genuinely able to be recycled the focus would then be on local authorities to either use their own facilities to recycle the collections or to make arrangements with recycling companies to take the waste in order to meet recycling targets.
    The technology is widely available to sort, size reduce and clean waste plastics. We certainly have the colourant technology to ensure that black and other coloured plastics currently relying on carbon black as an additive, can be identified by NIR scanning.
    Surely, this would end confusion for consumers, who generally would welcome recycling as a given and free local authorities from the “we will take this but we won’t take that” culture.

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