EPISODE 3: “THE FUTURE OF PLASTICS AND RECYCLING”
FEB 2020 – WITH DR. ADAM READ, WASTE & RECYCLING EXPERT
From 2023, if you produce a product that ends up as waste (or packaging that is discarded) then future legislation will place the responsibility of the cost of waste recovery onto you as the producer. This makes sense in a circular economy as producers already cover the cost of a linear supply chain from raw material to delivery to the end user. But that point is not the true end of a product’s lifecycle.
What do those producers need to know about the recycling stage of the circular economy today and in the future?
This is what I tried to get to the bottom of with a tour of a recycling facility and an incredibly insightful conversation with Dr Adam Read – one of the UK’s top authorities on waste management and recycling and Director of External Affairs for Suez. You really should spare the 1 hour to listen to the full podcast, but if you can’t, I’ve tried to summarise the key messages for you below.
I was expecting to end the visit and leave the discussion feeling deflated about the future. What surprised me was how hopeful I felt, having seen a vision of how we can and will turn things around in the future.
This is what you need to know…
FUTURE LEGISLATION THAT CONSUMER ORGANISATIONS SHOULD PREPARE FOR
•New “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) policies are being planned for 2023 across Europe and beyond. They will make the original producer of a product responsible for the cost of waste management.
•The cost of waste management incorporates not only the sorting and recycling process, but also the logistics of collection and transportation, plus litter.
•The principles of EPR policies are consistent across Europe, but each country will be responsible for the local approach to implementation of those policies, as the UK has done since 1995 for the current EPR regime.
•Products (and associated packaging) that include materials that cannot be easily recycled, reused OR repaired will suffer a financial impact as a result.
ACTUAL LEVELS OF RECYCLING ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THEORETICAL RECYCLABILITY
•More important than whether packaging is made from theoretically recyclable materials is whether those materials can be handled by the waste mgmt. processes of today.
•As a good example, certain “compostable” packaging materials work in laboratory conditions but do not work within an industrial composter. Those considering a switch to a “green material” must seek specialist advice to avoid making things worse.
•Binary packaging labelling is now in effect. Labelling is now a straight “yes you can” or “no you can’t” and that will take recycling processes and existing collection services into consideration as well as theoretical recyclability.
WHAT TO DO TODAY WHEN ASSESSING YOUR PLASTIC PACKAGING
•No matter the emotional impact of Blue Planet 2 and irate consumers demanding action on plastics, avoid knee-jerk reactions as you risk doing more harm than good without proper research.
•Engage with the waste mgmt. industry to understand how your specific products are actually handled through the recycling process and build your plans for the medium term practically around the reality of what the system can handle. Use the same approach for planned new packaging materials to avoid doing more harm.
•Assess the type and quality of plastics you are currently using. Simple polymers such as PET and HDPE are highly recyclable. The better the quality, the more recyclable.
•Assess how much composite materials or treated paper you use. Current recycling processes are unable to handle the separation of these mixed materials, while waxed papers require a specialist recycling process that therefore demand separation at collection stage.
•The carbon impact of production and reprocessing of other packaging materials must also be considered when assessing the environmental credentials of any packaging material. For example, switching to aluminium might not be as green as you think, even if it can be recycled endlessly.
•Seek to educate your consumers on the exact required approach needed for recycling a product at the end of its life. One of the biggest issues in recycling processes is “hopeful recycling” by well-intentioned consumers who don’t have the required information to make an informed decision about which bin or box to use.
•Be careful on what you are claiming on your labelling. For example, plastic polymers are not 100% recyclable. Recovered polymer fibres need to be mixed with about 20% virgin material in the recycling process.
WHAT TO DO FOR THE FUTURE OF PACKAGING AND WASTE:
•Greater standardisation of materials and packaging formats will be a major part of the future. Organisations that innovate solutions individually risk driving an increase in complexity (and possibly cost) because the collection and processing system cannot handle new formats.
•Collaboration across specific industries is key. Procurement professionals should consider collaborating with their competitors to agree on standardised materials and packaging formats.
•Larger consumer organisations should consider investing in the waste management industry now – either financially or in terms of meaningful joint venture collaboration. This will positively impact product design and allow consumer goods organisations to impact the cost of waste mgmt. when new EPR legislation comes in.
•Recycling should be the choice for everyone, especially those that make purchasing decisions based on price. 45% of UK materials are currently recycled, but that number has plateaued for 5 years. Anything you can do to influence others to target the remaining 55% will make a huge difference.
•Look in different places for future solutions. Look to the past and look to less “developed” countries. Many solutions to our challenges of today have already been delivered. Less developed countries often have highly sustainable local economies – what can we learn from these places?
REMEMBER THAT RECYCLING AND PACKAGING IS ONLY A SMALL PART OF THE BIGGER PICTURE
•Recycling is a quick win. It makes everyone across the consumer experience feel better about things. It is a good start but cannot be thought of as anything more than that!
•EPR doesn’t just cover the recycling of packaging, but also of the product itself. Fashion, consumer electronics and other such industries will be substantially affected by future legislation in the medium term.
•Consumer organisations that rethink their purpose with a blank piece of paper could be the long-term winners. Blockbuster Video thought their business was to distribute videos and DVDs across a huge retail network. If they had realised they delivered the experience of watching a movie to their customers, they would be the Netflix of today. It’s a scary thought, but not one to be ignored.
•Consumer businesses are already bringing refill and reuse solutions to the market today. This is a strategy that many consumer organisations should consider for the future.
•From an environmental perspective, when is the right time to combine all the ingredients that make up your finished product? For example, if you make fizzy drinks that combines a concentrate with water and CO2, when is the best time to add the water and CO2? Will society continue to accept the way it is done today? If so, for how long?
If you find this blog useful, PLEASE SHARE IT WITH OTHERS!
If this blog makes you want to take action but you are not sure how to go about it, why not have a read of the blog accompanying episode 2 here
And if you would like some further information on EPR legislation or have additional questions, PLEASE GET IN TOUCH on firstname.lastname@example.org