Paying As You Consume

Robbie Staniforth, policy manager, Ecosurety, looks the recent development in packaging recycling reforms, saying we as a country are agreeing to shift the cost of recycling packaging directly onto consumers, by embedding it in products, rather than financing through taxation.

For those following the developments in packaging recycling reforms, the Environmental Audit Committee hearing a few weeks ago made for compelling viewing. With a just few industry figures from a cross-section of the sector taking part, it was interesting to hear how there continues to be general agreement on the kinds of reforms required. Ultimately, these objectives have not changed much since the early part of this year.

We heard yet again that the PRN (packaging waste recovery note) is a market-driven system that suffers from short-termism. A fact to which I’m in total agreement. It’s something we’ve been working hard to change over the past few years through longer-term partnerships with reprocessors. Recyclers need the backing of compliance schemes, and their members, to sufficiently invest in improving UK infrastructure.

It was great to hear Lee Marshall from LARAC say the “PRN system is older than Google”. It made me think back to when we first started discussing this internally a few years ago and just how little the role of local authorities featured in the debate. Make no mistake, the improvements to local services over the past two decades have played a huge role in getting us this far.

I think it likely that local authorities will be net beneficiaries of PRN reform, but they will need assurances before they relinquish control of their prized income stream.

I agree that now is the time to introduce a meaningful pull mechanism and material standards, rather than rely on the push measures of recycling targets. However, one thing helpfully highlighted by the BBC last week, is the startling variance between the types of plastic material collected by councils. In tandem with the harmonisation of material placed onto the market, doorstep collections must standardise too.

I continue to question the £600M figure for the total net cost of packaging recovered in the UK. Before stakeholders can effectively respond to a consultation on packaging reform, it is important for Defra to publish a well-researched estimation, as well as their interpretation of “full net cost recovery”. Ultimately, there should be a principled negotiation between stakeholder groups, and like it or not, the magnitude of money involved will be a factor.

Industry figures on the panel made clear that the 70% recycling target would be very difficult to meet without changes to legislation. Although some concern was expressed that implementing a DRS for beverage containers could damage the current kerbside collection scheme, the reality is that difficult decisions are going to have to be made.

I think it likely that local authorities will be net beneficiaries of PRN reform, but they will need assurances before they relinquish control of their prized income stream. Even more reason why our industry needs to shift the focus away from headline grabbing phrases like “latte levy” that only really work for politicians, by concentrating on issues based on environmental merit.

Finally, a note of alarm on the reality of the “producer-pays principle”. It seemed to be a surprise to some committee members that the cost of compliance would find its way into the cost of the packaged products we buy. This isn’t a cost that will just be swallowed by industry. Of course, it will be passed to consumers. And that is the whole point.

We as a country are agreeing to shift the cost of recycling packaging directly onto consumers, by embedding it in products, rather than financing through taxation. And just when you thought the “pay as you…” debate was dead, there’s more than one way to skin that cat!

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