‘We will go further and faster to reduce, reuse and recycle’: UK launches ‘producer pays’ strategy to target plastic pollution and food waste – FoodNavigator.com

The strategy, released today (18 December) by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, represents a complete overhaul of England’s waste system. According to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), it will place a legal onus on manufacturers who produce waste to “take greater responsibility and foot the bill​”.

The initiative aims to eliminate avoidable plastic waste and boost recycling rates by simplifying the recycling system and introducing a consistent approach to recycling across England. Under the devolved powers Scotland, Ireland and Wales are responsible for the implementation of independent recycling strategies. 

A single set of recyclable material for collection will be introduced throughout England and a deposit return scheme will be launched to encourage recycling of single-use drinks containers including bottles, cans and disposable cups filled at the point of sale.

“Our strategy sets out how we will go further and faster, to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Together we can move away from being a ‘throw-away’ society, to one that looks at waste as a valuable resource,​” Gove said.

“Through this plan we will cement our place as a world leader in resource efficiency, leaving our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

A ‘rubbish deal’ for business?

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Businesses contributing to waste will bear the brunt of costs associated with the scheme.

The Environment Secretary stressed that he aims to tackle the problem by making “polluters pay​” through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which will see industry pay higher fees if their products are harder to reuse, repair or recycle.

EPR for packaging will raise between £500 million and £1 billion a year for recycling and disposal, according to government forecasts. Currently, businesses pay just 10% of the cost of dealing with waste, the government revealed.

The UK has already signalled its intention to tax plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content from April 2022. “This will address the current issue of it often being cheaper to use new, non-recycled plastic material despite its greater environmental impact,​” Gove suggested.

However, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) national chairman Mike Cherry was highly critical of the proposal, arguing that it will damage small businesses as they are forced to grapple with the uncertain trading environment caused by Brexit chaos.

Many businesses are already under the cosh and coping with politicians’ inability to decide on Brexit or tackle the increasing costs hitting firms making British goods. Manufacturers now face a 900% increase in the cost burden associated with disposal or recycling of packaging,​” he said.

Cherry noted that there has been “very little scrutiny​” of the impact these measures could have and added that they may well result in higher consumer prices.

“Small businesses want to play their part in protecting the environment, many are the leaders in this field. The government must give small businesses time – and support – to adapt to environmental measures. Small businesses have tight margins and try and save every penny as it is.”

The Food and Drink Federation also expressed concern over the impact that this package will have on SMEs. “Many of the measures being suggested by Defra today will place considerable financial burdens on food and drink manufacturers and SMEs in particular. The timing of such an announcement also needs to be considered alongside the spectre of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit scenario which still looms large over our industry,”​ a spokesperson for the association told FoodNavigator.

In contrast, the recycling industry welcomed the move. Richard Kirkman, Veolia’s chief technology and innovation officer, said these steps could “dramatically change​” how the sector operates and increase recycling and recovery rates.

“With consistent collections and advanced facilities… more recyclable materials can be collected for reprocessing into new products. As a business, we are ready to invest, to take advantage of new technology, build more infrastructure and work with brand owners.”

Food waste in focus

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Food waste is also firmly in the cross hairs. Gove said that the strategy aims to bring an “end​” to the £20bn “economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste”.

Stressing that the carbon footprint of UK food waste is estimated at one-fifth of the country’s total emissions, Defra said that its “determination”​ to combat food waste has not, to date, been “matched by progress​” .

Food companies must “do more”​ to make their supply chains more efficient, the strategy document argued.

According to food waste charity WRAP, 205,000 tonnes of food could be redistributed each year rather than going to waste. The government plans to set up a £15m pilot scheme to reduce food waste through redistribution. The pilot scheme will be developed in collaboration with businesses and charities and will launch in 2019/20.

Most significantly for food businesses, the government also plans to launch a consultation on annual reporting on food waste – and is mulling “legal powers”​ to back up food waste targets and surplus food redistribution obligations.

“We will consult in 2019 on introducing regulations to make reporting mandatory for businesses of an appropriate size. We will also consult on seeking powers for mandatory food waste prevention targets for appropriate food businesses and for surplus food redistribution obligations to be introduced subject to progress made by businesses to reduce food waste.”

The drive to cut food waste is widely recognised as necessary by the food sector. However food industry body the FDF insisted that the government should consult with industry on implementation and acknowledge the efforts businesses are already making.

An FDF spokesperson stressed that the organisation and its member companies are “fully committed​” to developing circular economy solutions and a more sustainable food and drink supply chain. However, the Federation stressed the need for further consultation.

“It is important that the government engages closely with the food and drink industry as it begins to consult on these measures, particularly given the work already being done across the supply chain to tackle such issues as food waste and packaging,”​ the spokesperson said.

Ecolabels under consideration

Defra’s Resources and Waste strategy also aims to encourage consumers to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. This could be achieved through various interventions, including extending the plastic bag charge.

Use by dates 

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Information such as ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates have an important role in deciding whether consumers throw food out.

Defra launched new guidance on food labelling in 2017 and the department said it expects this to be ‘fully implemented’.

Defra is also mulling changes to recommendations for ‘best before’ labelling of fresh produce: “In 2019, we will review the current recommendation for most pre-packed uncut fresh produce to carry a ‘Best Before’ date. Government’s expectation is that before the review, industry will provide evidence about changes to fresh produce date labelling (including the removal of ‘Best Before’ advice), both in store and at home, as a move towards a consistent approach across the sector.​”

In particular, Defra revealed that it is mulling the launch of a national ecolabel that communicates the environmental impact of products to consumers.

Currently, the UK uses the EU Ecolabel scheme but Defra said there is low take-up and few consumers recognise it. Meanwhile, private sector ecolabels have emerged that cover a range of aspects around environmental sustainability.

“We will address this confusion and ensure consumers are provided with better information, starting by working with key stakeholders including industry, trade associations and standard-setting bodies to develop options for a domestic ecolabel,”​ the strategy detailed.

“Among the options available are multi-factor schemes that enable products to obtain an ecolabel; those that make consumer information on products mandatory; and schemes which provide different ratings – similar to current energy labelling. Issues that we will consider include how to encourage people to buy on the strength of those labels, and whether a scheme requires statutory backing, given that private sector standards are emerging alongside well-recognised ISO standards.”

‘Precious little commitment to targets’

Environmental campaigners welcomed the development. Friends of the Earth’s Julian Kirby noted that the government “appears to be getting serious”​ about tackling the UK’s “mountains”​ of waste… “at long last”.

Forcing firms to pay the full cost dealing with the packaging they create is great news, and will give companies a clear incentive to produce less waste in the first place,”​ Kirby predicted.

However, the strategy still fails to deliver on the concrete targets environmental groups like Friends of the Earth have been calling for.

“While there are many welcome initiatives in this strategy, there is still too much reliance on voluntary measures, and precious little commitment to targets to reduce waste and boost recycling.

“This strategy also gives little recognition to the vital importance of cutting the production of plastic in the first place. Recycling has a role to play – but at the end of the day it will only slow the rate of increase in plastic pollution.”