More hints from DoE on packaging waste policy

A landfill tax coupled with a duty on packaging producers to take responsibility for packaging waste was hinted at by the Department of the Environment (DoE) during a House of Lords' inquiry into the proposed EC Directive on packaging. The inquiry also heard criticisms of the proposal from Friends of the Earth (FoE), which wants a stronger emphasis on packaging waste avoidance and measures to stimulate outlets for recycled materials.

In June, the Select Committee on the European Communities heard evidence on the draft Directive from the DoE, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and several industry groups, including the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). The final word was left to Friends of the Earth (FoE).

Trade and Industry Minister Tim Eggar had previously hinted that the Government was contemplating following the French model of setting a 75% "valorisation" target for packaging waste, to which incineration with energy recovery as well as material recycling could contribute. This contrasts with the more stringent 90% recovery and 60% recycling targets in the proposed EC Directive (ENDS Report 220, pp 25-26 ).

In June, however, the inquiry was told by Richard Dudding (Director of Pollution Control and Wastes, DoE) that the French system could be "too bureaucratic". The Government has a "natural prejudice" against umbrella-type organisations such as the French Eco-Emballages body, he said, and was looking at allowing the various packaging industries more freedom to set up independent systems, as advocated by INCPEN.

In discussing the use of economic instruments to encourage recycling of household waste, Mr Dudding suggested that the effect on packaging of a landfill levy would be "a bit watered down" because the higher disposal costs would only reach the consumers through the council tax. Responsibilities on producers to manage their waste would make a more direct impact. The Government, he suggested, "might see a combination as more effective."

At the closing session of the inquiry, FoE argued that the draft Directive would result in a lowering of standards in Member States which had already set up packaging waste management systems, notably Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. "We don't see this move to the lowest common denominator of environmental standards to be consistent with the needs of sustainable development," argued Peni Walker of FoE. "How can they pretend that it has anything to do with the environment?" she later asked when discussing the Directive's emphasis on harmonisation.

FoE would like to see priority given to waste avoidance. There is "still an enormous amount of unnecessary packaging being used," said Ms Walker, quoting FoE's over-packing study (see p 25 ), a German study that identified 98% of secondary packaging as unnecessary, and work by FoE Netherlands which has found that primary packaging could be reduced by 10% by making packs more efficient.

INCPEN, on the other hand, argued that sometimes not enough packaging is used, quoting a study which found that 30% of white goods are damaged in transit.

FoE's other major concern is that the draft Directive does not address the issue of markets for collected material. This was the "big mistake" made by the German Government in drawing up its Packaging Ordinance.

INCPEN's solution is to stop collecting material for which there is no market by lowering the targets and allowing incineration as a valid recovery method. But FoE wants positive steps to create markets. Its primary suggestion was that a mandatory level should be set for recycled materials in new packaging. The group also wants financial instruments to encourage the use of recycled materials, grants and subsidies for capital investment, and preferential purchasing policies in local and central government.

The idea of a minimum recycled content is not supported by industry. INCPEN maintains that a target will be difficult to measure and open to abuse. But it did agree that the Government should prefer recycled materials in its purchasing decisions.

There was some debate at the hearings over whether the targets could be met. The Aluminium Can Recycling Association said that it would exceed a 60% recycling rate before the end of the decade - the current rate is 16% - but said that the 90% recovery target was unachievable. The world average aluminium can recycling rate is currently 50%, while in Norway and Sweden rates of over 80% are achieved.

British Steel Tinplate also argued that the Directive's targets are too high, although it has set itself a goal of recycling 50% of steel cans by 2000, equalling the current rates in Germany and the Netherlands. Where magnetic extractors are installed rates of up to 80% are already achieved in the UK. Both the steel and aluminium industries could absorb all the metal collected.

However, high recovery and recycling rates could not be achieved for aluminium foil, according to the Aluminium Foil Recycling Campaign, which has set itself a target of recycling 30% within ten years.

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