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The public are putting in huge efforts to tackle plastic pollution, these Government policies would effectively support them

Following the publication of Link's 'A Wasted Opportunity?' report, Link's Resources and Waste Policy Officer Matthew Dawson outlines the importance of upcoming government decisions on the design of the 'deposit return scheme' and 'extended producer responsibility for packaging', explaining how these reforms could reshape how we manage waste and tackle plastic pollution.

August 2021

Over 11 million tonnes of packaging are placed on the UK market each year with impacts that are clear for all to see. When improperly discarded, these items leave parks strewn with rubbish, they clog up our rivers, and threaten marine life with ingestion or entanglement.

More generally, producing packaging requires a huge amount of resources. The importance of tackling high resource use has been outlined by the UN, which found that resource extraction and processing causes 90% of global biodiversity loss and water stress, as well as 50% of overall carbon emissions.

The Link Resources and Waste Group has been scrutinising the government’s attempts to tackle this problem, looking at the suite of waste reforms on which the Government has recently consulted. These include the deposit return scheme (DRS), which will place a deposit on beverage containers to encourage recycling and reduce litter, and Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging (EPR), which should ensure packaging producers pay the full cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste.

A new report published by the group finds that these changes to our waste system could deliver meaningful improvements to our use of resources, but a lack of ambition and detail means that these benefits are at risk.

A key concern is that the long-awaited DRS scheme could be watered down to cover only a third of the containers captured by the optimal design. The government will soon decide whether to back an ‘all-in’ system (covering all beverage containers) which will capture around 23bn containers a year, or an ‘on-the-go’ design (covering only smaller containers) which would capture just 7.4bn. This means over 16bn bottles and cans could remain outside a DRS, with no deposit to incentivise their return.

On EPR, the report finds that the scheme could play an important role in addressing our waste problems at source; reshaping the systems which lock us into wasteful consumption patterns.

To understand the importance of this change, consider the average take-away or food delivery service. At present a meal might arrive in multiple containers (some plastic, some paper lined with plastic), with plastic sauce sachets, and drinks with plastic straws, all delivered in a plastic bag. Each meal leads to a significant amount of waste, much of which ends up in landfill, incineration or littered.

Many businesses have sought to address this through switching from plastic to other materials, however, this isn’t a long-term solution. For example, while a restaurant might switch to paper straws, these are unlikely to be recycled (so will end up in the black bin) and switching from plastic to paper bags results in higher greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, in 2018 paper and card were responsible for more UK greenhouse gas emissions than any other packaging material. Adverse environmental impacts remain whatever material is used, as long as the packaging is designed to be just for a single-use.

The only sustainable solution is to move away from our dependency on single-use packaging and embrace reusable systems. And we need bolder government action to drive this change, particularly in sectors such as groceries, e-commerce, takeaways and restaurants.

In the EPR consultation, the government asked whether respondents “agree or disagree that the Scheme Administrator (which will run the scheme) should proactively fund the development and commercialisation of reuse systems?” In theory, this raises the exciting possibility that EPR could help facilitate the transition to reusable systems for packaging.

This could mean that the Scheme Administrator channels money raised through EPR from producers of packaging to things such as financial support to cover start-up costs for businesses championing reuse, for example the initial outlay for purchasing reusable containers. It could also mean supporting reuse innovation such as improved reusable container design, technology to track the use of containers or more effective communications to drive changes in consumer behaviour. The Scheme Administrator could also support the adaptations required within supply chains to transition to reusable packaging systems.

The government is currently analysing responses to the recent EPR consultation and has not yet decided on whether to deliver the powers, resources and functions that the Scheme Administrator will need to push this agenda forward effectively.

Without this ambition set in stone and with the risk that DRS will not only be delayed but also watered down, our ability to address the waste crisis will be limited. With nature in crisis and the impacts of climate change more evident each day, the government must act boldly to deliver policies which match the public's desire to tackle our high levels of waste.

Matthew Dawson is the Policy Officer for Resources and Waste at Link, follow @WCL_News. Link's latest report highlights a lack of urgency and limited details in the UK Government’s waste reforms, assessing Extended Producer Responsibility, the Deposit Return Scheme, the Waste Prevention Programme, and Consistent Recycling Collections.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.