plastic packaging recycling

The UK is being held back by inconsistencies in its recycling infrastructure, which was designed for a pre e-commerce era

We’re waiting for further details from the UK government concerning the planned plastic packaging tax, due to be introduced by 2022. But urgent action can’t be delayed. That’s why others must follow the lead taken by major retailers such as Tesco, which last month announced that from 2020 it won’t list products using excessive packaging.

The government plans to introduce recycled content targets to support the use of secondary plastic in domestic production and manufacturing processes. In addition, there will be a future plastic packaging tax in the form of a flat rate tax on packaging to support this, applying to all plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content manufactured in the UK, as well as unfilled packaging imported into the country.

This plastic tax could cost households 7p per week, according to one estimate. Yet, without urgent action, the UK will be unable to meet its 65% recycling rate by 2035 target, in line with the EU’s Circular Economy Package, according to a report earlier this year.

Lack of investment in recycling services is a key problem. But the UK is also being held back by other issues – its recycling infrastructure, for example, which was designed for a pre e-commerce era. Consumers are also confused about what can and cannot be recycled. Then there are inconsistencies between different kerbside recycling systems operated in various parts of the UK.

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It’s already clear that recycling on its own is not the answer. We need to use more sustainable materials and move away from fossil fuel, and we require facilities such as industrial composting to support this move. It’s important that the government makes its thinking clear on this. Meanwhile, what can the rest of us do?

First, look to retailers now outpacing government legislation with their own, self-imposed, plastics recycling strategies. Tesco, for example, in August launched the second phase of its Remove, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle plan, setting out four steps that will govern packaging design across all categories. These are: remove all non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle material; where that’s not possible, reduce it to an absolute minimum (including excess packaging); where that can’t be achieved, explore new opportunities to re-use it; and ensure it is all recycled as part of a closed loop. In addition, Tesco recently briefed suppliers that from next year, the size and suitability of packaging will be assessed as part of category reviews and ranging decisions.

Second, commit to making packaging a primary consideration to be addressed at the start of any new product development process, not as a secondary afterthought. Iceland, which in January 2018 committed to becoming the first major retailer globally to eliminate plastic packaging from all of its own label products by the end of 2023, has reduced or removed plastic packaging across more than 80 lines, working with existing and new suppliers to find innovative solutions across the supply chain. For example, it has agreed new materials and processes to replace black plastic meal trays with all of its suppliers and is trialling non-plastic flow-wrap. Meanwhile, Co-op has committed to using a minimum 50% recycled plastic in its own-brand packaging by 2021, and to eliminating black and dark plastic packaging from its products by 2020.

Third, ask yourself if any of the materials you are currently using are actually sustainable. There are no shortcuts, it takes time and effort to trace the different materials back to their source.

It might be tempting to sit back and wait for the government’s lead before deciding how best to respond. But the plastics crisis is all too present, and the time to ready ourselves for constructive action is now. 

Ian Schofield is an independent consultant and former own label & packaging manager at Iceland Foods. He is a non-executive director at global brand design consultancy Elmwood, advising on sustainability.