EFRA committee report on plastic waste and the government’s response

On 7th November 2022, following their Plastic Waste Inquiry, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published their report The price of plastic: ending the toll of plastic waste.  The REA gave evidence to the committee during the investigation and some of this has been referenced in the report.  The government’s response to the Committee was published on 27 January 2023.  In green text updates to this (our original) 8/11/22 article, we have focussed on parts of government’s response relevant to compostable plastics and packaging.    

~ ~ ~ o ~ ~ ~

The committee made several recommendations to the government. These included:

  • Calling for a ban on the export of all plastic waste from the UK by the end of 2027 and government publication of a roadmap, by March 2023, on how to achieve this.  The aim of the ban is to reduce the UK’s contribution to global plastic waste pollution, the Committee seeing this being part of a strategy to use less plastic, re-use more of it and boost recycling.
  • Encouraging greater adherence to the ‘waste hierarchy’ which stipulates, first, reducing the volume of waste by eliminating unnecessary use or packaging, then encouraging re-use of it, before turning to recycling. The committee recommended that government targets are reformed to more closely follow this waste hierarchy – and aim for ALL plastic waste to be recycled, re-used or composted by 2042, not just for ‘avoidable’ plastic waste to be targeted.
  • Expediting the rollout of ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’, which will see producers of plastic packaging pay fees on the packaging products they put on the market.  This should incentivise them to reduce the amount of packaging they produce and use more easily recyclable materials. The committee also recommended that the scheme is applied to more producers – covering all businesses that put more than 1 tonne of packaging on the market – by 2030.
  • Creating a taskforce to explore ways of encouraging greater uptake of ‘re-use and refill’ schemes – such as those where customers use their own containers to fill up with a product. These could include possible charges on single-use products, and initiatives aimed at encouraging public awareness and uptake of re-use and refill schemes.
  • Confirming its support for the Plastic Packaging Tax which is applied to products that contain less than 30% of plastic from recycled sources. This tax is expected to increase the demand for recycled plastic material – and so encourage investment in the recycling sector. This 30% level should vary according to the needs of different sectors and should be increased over time.
  • Using some of the income raised by the Extended Producer Responsibility and Plastic Packaging Tax schemes to invest in recycling infrastructure and to promising areas of future research. This should support the compostables plastics and chemical recycling industries, which currently appear to offer the best means of managing necessary but difficult to recycle plastics, such as plastic films.


Focus on compostables issues covered

Of particular interest to our Organics members may be the sections on compostables in paragraph 90 to 92 of the report.  The Committee’s report states:

‘there appears to an emerging consensus that compostable material could serve a purpose in specific, targeted applications. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A Plastic Planet, the British Plastics Federation and the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub all argued that compostable plastics are “likely to play an important but small role in the future of sustainable packaging,” particularly hard-to-recycle, but necessary plastic products contaminated by food waste. While there are question marks over the impact on long term soil health, various studies do appear to show that compostable packaging, produced to the right standard, can be effectively disposed of alongside food waste—an approach already followed in Italy, Ireland and Spain. Redirecting food waste remaining on plastics into composting could also close the loop on food waste, a major greenhouse gas emitter, and help to generate more fertiliser and improve soil health. Finally, as many consumers erroneously dispose of food-contaminated flexible plastics into their organic and food waste streams compostable solutions could help the organic recycling sector, which current spends around £7.26 million per year trying to remove and dispose of conventional plastics that have contaminated their waste streams.’

On the subject of compostable plastics, the government’s response was that ‘the Committee should note there has been a change in the government’s position since the Resources and Waste Strategy was published in 2018. In this, we committed to work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.  However, since then, we are focussing on increasing reuse and recycling, not composting of plastic packaging. Compostable plastics are inherently single-use and are not in line with our vision for a circular economy for plastics.  Though we recognise there is a valid role for compostable plastics to play in some niche applications, such as tea bags or fruit labels, packaging as a whole does not constitute a niche use and therefore we will continue to prioritise the reuse and recycling of plastic packaging, where a reduction cannot be achieved.’

‘The committee heard evidence supporting the government’s position during oral evidence sessions, with one witness noting that plastics were a valuable material and keeping them circulating round the system would be the best outcome in the majority of cases.’

The Committee’s report recommended:

‘By 2023, the Government should update its infrastructure roadmap to set out its plan for the future role of chemical recycling and composting within our plastics economy and waste management system. In particular, the Government must make a decision, based on the latest evidence about their impact on soil health, on the role of compostables, so that the organic recycling sector can adapt alongside the mandatory collection of food waste in 2024/25. If they are to be encouraged, the Government should adapt national targets to reflect their expected use. Product labelling must also be standardised to clearly indicate to consumers how they should dispose of compostable plastics and prevent them from contaminating other plastic waste streams. Labels should avoid unhelpful terms like ‘biodegradable’.’

It goes on to say ‘The Government need to publish clear, evidence-based criteria for how Extended Producer Responsibility fees and the Plastic Packaging Tax will apply to new technologies, including compostable plastics and chemical recycling. We recommend the hypothecation of income raised from fees on compostable plastics and chemical recycling to research the most promising versions of these technologies or the development of appropriate recycling infrastructure.’

No exemption from the Plastic Packaging Tax
Bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging is not allowable when calculating recycled plastic content for the purposes of the Plastic Packaging Tax, due to limited evidence of the impacts from long-term and widespread use. The government has committed to work with industry and the research community to improve understanding of these impacts and to keep their treatment under the tax under review.

No hypothecation of fees paid in by compostable packaging obligated parties under the pEPR scheme
In response to the committee’s recommendation to hypothecate income raised from fees on compostable plastics and chemical recycling to research the most promising versions of these technologies or the development of appropriate infrastructure, the government disagreed with hypothecating fees towards research. It’s pEPR scheme will require obligated producers of packaging to pay for collection and management of packaging waste produced by households and disposed of in street bins provided by local authorities.

Government stated that ‘..provisions in the Environment Act 2021 provide for regulations to be made requiring those involved in manufacturing, processing distributing or supplying products or materials to meet, or contribute to, the disposal costs of those products or materials, meaning that the costs paid by producers cannot be hypothecated to fund research. pEPR is in most part a cost transfer. It will transfer the costs of dealing with packaging waste generated by households from taxpayers to the packaging producers, applying the ‘polluter-pays principle’. It will also support the costs of introducing new and improved services for the collection and management of packaging waste such as the collection of recyclable plastic films and flexible packaging for recycling.’

The government also stated that through UKRI’s £60m five-year Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging programme they have supported projects on chemical recycling and compostable plastics.  {The latter is part of a ten-partner consortium researching ‘Capturing and processing compostable packaging – Behaviour change interventions and infrastructure considerations’, the REA being part of this consortium.  Click HERE for more information.}

Must be labelled ‘do not recycle’ until the infrastructure and evidence base is improved
Government agreed with the Committee on the importance of clear labelling and flagged the Competition and Markets Authority’s ‘Green Claims Code: making environmental claims’ that was published in 2021. This guidance aims to help businesses understand and comply with their existing obligations under consumer protection law when making environmental claims and provides ‘examples of the use of terms ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’, and ‘recyclable’.

Government agreed ‘the term ‘biodegradable’ is unhelpful and in some cases misleading, as it does not necessarily specify how long a material will take to ‘biodegrade’ completely, under what circumstances it will biodegrade and into what outputs’.

They went on to reply that ‘prior to labelling packaging as ‘recycle’ or ‘do not recycle’ businesses will need to assess the recyclability of their packaging. Government will be commissioning the development of a recyclability methodology so that packaging can be assessed following a common approach against agreed criteria. Government will invite tenders for the development of this assessment methodology, however a key consideration in determining whether packaging is recyclable or not will be the availability of collection services for recyclable packaging materials and sorting/processing facilities to enable that packaging to be recycled. Along with all other packaging types, compostable and biodegradable packaging will need to be assessed using this approach and the packaging labelled according to the outputs’*. However, in the Government Response to the pEPR consultation published in March 2022 it was acknowledged that until the infrastructure and evidence base is improved, compostable and biodegradable packaging would be expected to have the ‘do not recycle’ label applied’.

* Presumably whether the output achieved recycled status, via whatever methods count in law as recycling.

They have a role in niche applications
Responding to committee recommendation that government make a decision on the role of compostable plastics, the latter responded that their ‘position on these materials is already very clear’. ‘Compostable plastics have a limited role to play in a circular economy, given they are inherently single use. A 2020 Eunomia report, titled ‘Relevance of Biodegradable and Compostable Consumer Plastic Products and Packaging in a Circular Economy’ established that currently there is inadequate (peer-reviewed) evidence to suggest that the small amount of biomass from broken-down compostable plastic provides benefits to soils or digestate. Unlike reusable or recyclable plastics, from a life-cycle perspective, it is important to understand that all the resources and energy used to produce compostable plastics are then lost at end of life (not including incineration with energy recovery), instead producing further greenhouse gases as they break down.’

‘Supporting an increased uptake of compostable plastics could indirectly support the continuous and potentially elevated level of extraction or growth of the feedstocks needed for further production of these materials. The government considers this an undesirable outcome given the wasted resource at end of life, as they cannot be reused or recycled, so there is limited value to be gained in a circular economy. However, we do recognise there may be a valid role to play in niche applications – this has been set out earlier in this response.’

Setting out their view on the role of compostable plastics with regard to improving ‘consistency in recycling’, ‘compostable plastics are not included as a separate recyclable waste stream in the Environment Act 2021, and we do not propose to include this material in any of the other recyclable waste streams. There are, however, provisions in the Environment Act to add additional waste streams in the future, subject to certain conditions. Therefore, the mandatory collection of compostable packaging (as a separate recyclable waste stream in the Environment Act, which must either be collected separately or co-collected with another waste stream, such as food waste) is not proposed to occur unless a number of conditions are met, including ensuring that the material being [is] suitable for collection and recycling and ensuring that end markets exist for the material.’

Packaging recycling targets, evidence of compliance and point of measurement of recycling

Current producer responsibility packaging waste regulations include recycling targets for packaging, by material type.  Producers show compliance with their recycling obligations by acquiring packaging waste recycling notes (PRNs) or packaging waste export recycling notes (PERNs). ‘Each PRN/PERN relates to a tonne of packaging waste that has been received for recycling (or exported for recycling) by an accredited reprocessor or exporter.’

Government intends its new producer responsibility packaging waste regulations – that will introduce packaging extended producer responsibility (pEPR) – will set packaging waste recycling targets on producers to 2030.  In March 2022, the government’s response to stakeholders’ feedback on its pEPR proposals included a recycling target of 62 % by 2030 and in responding to the Committee they said ‘the provisional recycling rate reported for plastic packaging in 2021 is 44.2%’.

‘The regulations will clarify the point at which evidence of recycling can be issued and hence the point of measurement of recycling, that is once packaging waste has been received and prepared for recycling at the reprocessing site.’

~ ~ ~ o ~ ~ ~