Reform of the Packaging Recovery Note System is crucial

Waste & Resources

Reform of the Packaging Recovery Note System is crucial

Strategy must be a game-changer

Plastics and packaging are at the forefront of the battle on waste as the public becomes more aware of their effect on our environment. Our relationship with plastic in particular, has come to the forefront recently following the now infamous Blue Planet episode and its emotive images of marine life affected by plastic pollution.

The Government committed to publish a new Resources and Waste Strategy as part of the Clean Growth Plan in 2017. After we leave the European Union, Defra will become directly responsible for waste policy for the first time in decades. This is a real opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in resource efficiency and reduce the impact our consumption of products such as plastic has on the environment.

The UK has the potential to achieve economically attractive resource efficiency by designing a more circular, less linear resource management system. The new Strategy is a chance to alter our current consumption patterns, reduce our impact on the environment, and stimulate significant sustainable growth.

PRN reform to drive domestic markets and transparency

One of the key issues that the new Strategy needs to address is reform to the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system. The PRN system requires packaging producers to contribute to the recovery and recycling of packaging materials. It financially incentivises the packaging recycling industry to collect and reprocess (or export for reprocessing elsewhere) sufficient material to meet annual targets set by Government. Producers normally meet these obligations by purchasing PRN (or PERN for material that is exported) from accredited reprocessors.

The system currently incentivises exporting material, where there is little traceability over what happens to it, and exports accounted for over 50% by weight of the UK’s packaging material recycled in 2017. However, markets for exporting waste are shrinking. The biggest importers of UK waste, such as China, are closing the door to imports, so the system needs to be reformed to incentivise domestic reprocessing. This week, local councils have warned that the fallout from bans imports of UK waste from other countries is costing them up to £500,000 extra a year in collections, according to a survey by the Local Government Association.

As well as issues with exporting waste, there is little transparency in the way revenue from the PRN system is spent. According to data from the National Audit Office, producers only contribute around ten per cent of the cost burden of waste collections, with the rest being shouldered by local authorities.

The PRN system has certainly played an integral role in increasing the UK’s packaging recycling rates, but it must be reformed to drive this further. More producers should be obligated to comply, prices should be raised, design for recyclability should be incentivised and inclusion of recycled content rewarded.

We’ve detailed the other priorities that should form the basis of the new Resources and Waste Strategy. As well as reform of the PRN system, the new Strategy should include a framework for a systems-based approach, effective cross-departmental governance led by Defra, increased Extended Producer Responsibility, and encouragement of innovative data and measurement systems. These five key issues will have the most impact on creating a truly world-leading resource efficiency strategy, reducing our environmental impact and boosting the economy through sustainable growth.

You can read more about our priorities for the Resources and Waste Strategy here

By Heather Gardner

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