Packaging plan falls short of recycling target

The packaging and retail industries have submitted a plan to the Government which proposes that they could recycle 42% of all used packaging by 1999. The plan is conditional on extensive actions by other parties, and falls well short of making an equitable contribution to the household waste recycling target set by the Government.

The plan was drafted by the Consortium of the Packaging Chain (COPAC) from proposals submitted by seven packaging and retail industry groups. It represents their response to repeated official warnings since 1990 that they must come forward with credible proposals on recycling or face the legislative consequences.

The Government itself is under pressure from two quarters. It needs to ensure progress towards its target to recycle half of recyclable household waste by 2000. And it needs to have a defensible position for the forthcoming negotiations on the draft EC Directive on packaging waste (ENDS Report 210, p 32 ).

COPAC's plan, submitted to the Department of the Environment on 26 October, sets out how the packaging and retail industries intend to assist in the achievement of the Government's recycling target. The difficulty in assessing the plan is that the Government has still not made clear exactly what its target means.

The target applies to half of recyclable household waste. The Government's first attempt to shed light on what this meant was to say that probably 50% of all household waste was recyclable. It then accepted that incineration with energy recovery should not be treated as "recycling", at least for the purpose of the target. Composting enthusiasts then suggested that much more household waste could be treated as "recyclable" if the compostable fraction was taken into account. The Government's latest comment on the matter was to concede that "at least" half of household waste is "recyclable".

COPAC's plan has muddied the water further. It is based on the assumption that only 25% of household waste needs to be recycled by 2000 by means of recycling proper and composting taken together. It then advances an "objective" that 50% of all used packaging - from industrial, commercial and institutional sources as well as households - will be "diverted from landfill" by 2000, with the proviso that "appropriate collection and sorting facilities are in place."

To complicate matters still further, the plan shows that the recycling rate for all used packaging envisaged by COPAC will be 42% in 1999 - "recycling" in this case excluding composting and energy recovery. For packaging from households, however, the proposed recycling rate is only 33% by 1999.

The recycling rates proposed for individual packaging materials are shown in the table . No figure is given for glass from non-household sources because the glass industry did not provide information on collections via methods other than bottle banks.

Only glass and metals come close to meeting the Government's target for household waste if this is taken to mean that all packaging is "recyclable".

The plan goes on to say that the recycling rates proposed for 1999 will not be achievable without Government measures on several fronts. The most important is action to stem the flow of "subsidised" waste from recovery schemes on the European continent. The Government is also urged to accelerate the development of product specifications in the public sector to create new markets for recycled materials.

Specific constraints are also identified in each sector. For example, the recycling forecasts for steel are dependent on the incorporation of magnetic extraction equipment at waste transfer stations and some 20 energy-from-waste plants. The latter appear unlikely to materialise in such numbers without hefty subsidies (ENDS Report 211, pp 12-14 ).

The projections also assume that 11 million households will be separating their waste at source and using bottle banks and other "bring" systems by 1999.

The plan reveals that packaging users and retailers are considering active support for two schemes to evaluate the potential of an integrated recovery system of this kind on a large scale. These would be run in conjunction with dedicated material recovery facilities to separate aluminium, ferrous metals and plastics.

One scheme would cover an initial 100,000 households in West Sussex and Hampshire from 1993, expanding to all one million households in the two counties by an unspecified date. The second would build on the recycling achievements of Leeds to expand to all 700,000 households in West Yorkshire by 1994.

The Government's response to the plan is awaited. It is known to be considering a series of economic instruments to promote recycling, including a landfill tax and other measures directed at packaging producers, users and consumers.

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