Packaging waste in the UK: Unpacking the issues

Concerns remain about the impact of packaging waste on the environment, in particular, with packaging waste often ending up in oceans or landfill. The Government has sought to tackle this by introducing producer responsibilities and incentivising the use of recyclable materials. However, the coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges. This has seen local councils suspending recycling collections, leading to more waste being incinerated or placed in landfill and creating potential shortages of materials used to package food and medicinal products.

How much packaging waste is recycled or recovered in the UK?

Around 70% is either recycled or recovered, according to figures for 2017 published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This figure was slightly lower than the 71.4% recycled or recovered in 2016. A further 0.7 million tonnes of packaging waste was recovered from ‘energy from waste’ incineration in the UK in 2017. In the same year, paper and cardboard were the largest contributors of packaging waste at 4.7 million tonnes. Both materials had the highest recycling rate at 79%, followed by 71.1% for metal and 67.6% for glass.

By comparison, Belgium had the highest recycled or recovered rate among EU countries in 2017 at 83.8%. Iceland had the lowest rate at 46.8%.

What has the Government done to tackle packaging waste?

In recent years, the Government has acted to tackle packaging waste. This has included: producing guidance for packaging producers to adhere to; consulting on a tax on plastic packaging; and introducing a resources and waste strategy.

In the UK, businesses and organisations that have handled 50 tonnes of packaging materials or packaging and have a turnover of more than £2 million in the previous calendar year may be classed as an “obligated packaging producer”. This classification means they must follow rules to:

  • reduce the amount of packaging produced in the first place;
  • reduce how much packaging waste goes to landfill; and
  • increase the amount of packaging waste that’s recycled and recovered.

In addition, they must register with the National Packaging Waste Database or join an approved compliance scheme from the public register. Should a producer fail to meet its obligations, it could face prosecution under criminal law. In England and Wales, there are also civil penalties.

In October 2018, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that the Government was “determined” to increase recycling and would, therefore, introduce a tax on the manufacturing and importing of plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic. Explaining its reasoning behind the new tax, the Government said that the majority of plastic packaging used in the UK was made from new plastic.

In 2019, the Government consulted on the tax. Responding to the results, it stated that it would continue to consider approaches that “best support[ed]” the objectives of the tax, were administratively “feasible” and did not have a “disproportionate” impact on business.

Following this, in March 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that the Government would be introducing taxation from April 2022. This would include charging manufacturers and importers £200 per tonne of packaging made of less than 30% recycled plastic. Mr Sunak contended that this would increase the use of recycled plastic in packaging by 40%, equal to carbon savings of nearly 200,000 tonnes.

Clause 102 of the Finance Bill would provide for HMRC to prepare for the introduction of the tax before it is “formally provided for in law”. HMRC also announced that it would be publishing draft legislation for consultation in 2020.

In December 2018, the Government published its Resources and Waste Strategy for England. It detailed plans to reform the production and disposal of packaging waste, which the Government described as an “immediate priority”. Reforms will include measures to incentivise the reduction of “unnecessary and difficult to recycle” packaging and the production of recyclable packaging.

The Government has also stated that it will also review the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 by the end of 2020 and will reform them to make them more effective. The 2015 regulations set out specific requirements in relation to the design and use of packaging that producers and businesses in the UK must adhere to.

Many environmental organisations welcomed the strategy. For example, the chief executive officer of the Recycling Association, Simon Ellin, stated that the strategy “ticks most of the boxes we have asked for”, including “consistent” local authority collections. However, the Labour Party has been critical of the strategy for lacking clarity. In January 2019, the then Shadow Minister for Waste and Recycling, Sandy Martin, argued that there was “not enough detail about how many of the schemes might work” and “not enough emphasis on pollution”.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had?

People are buying more, creating further waste. For example, consumer spending on Amazon reportedly increased by 35%, compared with the same period in 2019. Online non-food sales rose by 18.8% during March 2020, against a growth of 2.5% in March 2019.

At the same time, some local councils suspended their recycling collections because of staff shortages and closed household waste and recycling centres as they were considered “non-essential”. This has led to packaging waste going into general household bins. General waste is often incinerated or placed in landfill. Some local councils have reported an increase in fly-tipping, which they have attributed in part to the closure of recycling services.

The Recycling Association has warned one effect of the pandemic could be a UK shortage of fibre used in paper and cardboard. This could result in the country facing a shortage of packaging for food and medicine.

The global pandemic has also caused countries to close their borders, resulting in other countries struggling to import such materials. For example, in Germany, large volumes of fibre are imported from Poland. However, the closure of Germany’s border with Poland until at least 15 June 2020 has reportedly led to the country having to seek fibre from the UK and France.

In April 2020, the Government published non-statutory guidance to local authorities in England on prioritising waste collection during the pandemic. This called for recyclable collections to be maintained because such waste was an “important source of raw materials” for new packaging. The Government said if such materials were not recycled or recovered, supply chain gaps “might appear”.

How the pandemic will affect the Government’s plans to tackle packaging waste remains to be seen.

Image by Antoine Giret from Unsplash.