RWM Conference 2022
This year’s RWM Conference was abuzz with chatter about the preparations being made for, and the potential impacts of, the Environment Bill 2020. This bill could be described as the most significant piece of waste-related legislation to be passed for 30 years.
Extended Producer Responsibility
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a key part of the bill that aims to bolster the circular economy by encouraging packaging producers to use more recycled content in their packaging and packaging that is itself more easily recycled. EPR will mean that packaging producers will pay the full cost of managing waste from collection through to reprocessing.
I was intrigued to attend a discussion entitled ‘Outcomes of the EPR’. A difficult subject to debate when the final structure of the EPR has not yet even been agreed. I wondered whether we would be treated to a session with a crystal ball!
Although the outcomes of the EPR are not yet known, there was lots to discuss around how EPR will operate. Adrian Hawkes from Valpak Ltd, James Bull from Tesco PLC, Lee Marshall from CIWM and Steve Morgan from Recoup were able to give us their professional insight into how they thought the industry would be impacted and the issues that need to be addressed for EPR to operate successfully.
From the outset, it was concerning to hear that the energy crisis may impact the introduction of EPR. There were suggestions that the cost of subsidising households with their energy use may mean the UK Government shelves the new regulations. So, hoping that EPR overcomes its first hurdle and is eventually introduced, the question was raised as to whether reprocessors are ready to accept the additional material that will be collected.
The proposed EPR system will mean that local authorities will be given funding to collect packaging waste for reprocessing. However we were told that the reprocessors are not ready to accept the additional materials and need investment to increase their capacity before the waste starts coming through. The ensuing discussion suggested that a mechanism to enable reprocessors to access funding is needed prior to EPR introduction.
The question of reprocessing capacity led to the age-old question about whether the export of waste was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The general consensus was that recyclate is a commodity and needs to be sent where it is being used for manufacturing, which is not always within the UK. So, there is a place for waste export in the EPR but it should only happen with assurance that the reprocessing facilities meet the highest environmental and employment standards.
Once the EPR system is in place the next logical question was how to get consumers on board and encourage them to recycle their waste? It is thought that Local Authorities (LA) will be responsible for communications in their area but it is well known that the quality of campaigns across the country can vary considerably. The answer to this question came in response to another question about how EPR will be administered and it was suggested that the Administrator should play more of a strategic role and engage specialist partners to deliver specific aspects of the scheme. In this way the Administrator could employ a specialist in communications to either guide LA communications campaigns or deliver them on their behalf.
Deposit Return Scheme
As an ex-Local Authority Waste Officer whose responsibility included managing bring recycling banks I hotly anticipate the arrival of the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in England. The principle of DRS is that a small fee will be paid by the consumer on purchase of a drink, this fee will be redeemable when the drinks container is returned to a collection point.
I am interested to know how DRS will perform as I fear it will experience similar problems to the bring bank system. I have visions of overfull machines and piles of non-recyclable waste dumped at collection points. The technology alone is enough to give me nightmares with too many things that could potentially break! So it was inspiring to hear from TOMRA Collection Ltd’s Mark Brill about his experience of providing DRS equipment to sites around Scotland and Europe.
TOMRA Collection Ltd supplies ‘reverse vending’ machines that accept drink containers in exchange for vouchers. It was great to hear Mark describe a system that was efficient and effective. Indeed he told us about a German study that has shown drinks containers eligible for recycling through a DRS met a recycling rate of 94% compared to a recycling rate of 64% for containers that were not eligible for recycling via a DRS. A very impressive statistic!
Separate collections of commercial food waste
The Environment Bill will make it obligatory for businesses to separate food waste for collection. Potentially a messy job for many retailers scraping food waste from crockery. However Eilidh O’Conner from Vegware, a company supplying bio-based compostable food service packaging for the takeaway food sector, offered a potential solution. Vegware can be composted via industrial composting facilities which means that the packaging and food waste can share the same disposal route. Routes for composting Vegware are limited but the company has developed partnerships with waste companies around the country that enable businesses to simply tap into a collection and reprocessing service.
Vegware also belongs to the Composting Coalition UK (CCUK), a group of organisations including composting packaging brands, retailers, bio-waste industry and trade associations who are working together to develop and expand this interesting new market. Their aim is to demonstrate full circularity for 3 particular types of packaging; consumer flexible packaging (such as crisp bags and fresh produce bags), small formats (such as coffee pods and tea bags) and single-use service ware which, according to CCUK, together represent over 25% of non-recycled plastic waste in the UK.
Plastic film and flexibles
The compulsory collection of flexibles and plastic film (FPF) is on the horizon and it feels like the sector is unprepared. So it was great to hear from Gareth Moreton who is working on the FPF FlexCollect Project. The project, which is funded by the Flexible Plastic Fund, is trialling the collection and recycling of FPF with the aim of ‘driving towards the long-term ambitions of ensuring flexible plastic recycling is UK based, fully circular and facilitated by household recycling collections.’
The FlexCollect Project and the Flexible Plastic Fund offers the opportunity to address issues around the collection and recycling of FPF before the obligations come into force. Recycling FPF is particularly onerous for the UK waste sector as it creates challenges for collectors arising from adding yet another waste stream to collection services and all that entails around consumer presentation, collection & transport. Reprocessors also face issues, primarily from the variety of FPF on the market.
The Flexible Plastic Fund hopes that they can give FPF a stable value which will help the industry to become more circular, meet the UK plastic packaging tax obligations and encourage investment in infrastructure and jobs to support the industry.
Moving towards a circular economy
The Environment Bill is putting a heavy burden on the waste industry but it was clear at the RWM Conference that there is a desire within the sector to embrace the changes and improve its circularity. The unanswered questions however around fundamental aspects of the new systems are putting meeting current deadlines at risk. I hope that this and the energy crisis doesn’t completely eclipse these exciting new changes and the waste sector gets the overhaul it needs soon.
BioVale Cluster Administrator
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash