Tuesday, 2 January 2018

A bottle deposit scheme is tinkering round the edges.

Much of the news reporting on the parliament report ‘Turning back the plastic tide’ has been about implementing a bottle deposit scheme for plastic bottles. However this is not the most important of the recommendations made.  The key ones, in my view, are those designed to build a market for recycled plastic and to shift the burden of handling packaging waste onto producers.

First a quick recap of the numbers. Annually in the UK
  • 13 billion plastic bottles used
  • 7.5 billion recycled
  • 3 billion incinerated
  • 2.5 billion go to landfill

This means less than 20% of bottles go to landfill, which is heartening, though it leaves room for improvement. Only 57% or bottles are actually recycled; incineration counts as recovery because it generates energy. It also reduces the environmental damage. However since most plastic comes from fossil fuels this contributes to GHG emissions.

A bottle deposit scheme would reduce littering.
Only 2% of bottles are picked up in litter but this is still 0.25 billion bottles a year and the environmental impact is great. Quite apart from the direct damage to the environment, seeing bottles discarded under a hedge or wherever encourages people to leave more litter. This is probably where the benefit of a bottle deposit scheme would be greatest. It would encourage people to keep their empties or even pick up other people's.

UK waste handlers invest 7 times as much in developing markets abroad than in the UK.
A bottle deposit scheme would increase the number or bottles collected but it will not necessarily get them recycled, at least not in this country. Only 14% of PET packaging (the majority as bottles) is recycled in the UK and not much of this is made back into a bottle [2]. We are heavily dependent on foreign markets for dumping our used plastic, especially China though this is not quite as bad as it was. As of 2015 two thirds of our plastic packaging exports went to China, but back in 2009 it was 88% [2]. China has now banned imports of a variety of plastics including PET bottles in a campaign against ‘foreign garbage’ [3]. Perhaps this is why the UK recycling industry has been investing in building other markets: £7 million into ‘reduction in price and developing end markets’ abroad compared to £1 million here [1].

In the UK producers pay less than 10% of the costs of collecting, sorting and handling their packaging waste.
A bottle deposit scheme would also shift some of the burden of waste handling onto the scheme operators, away from local authorities (LAs). Currently, packaging producers (that means companies that make and/or use packaging) have to ensure that targets for recycling are met by purchasing packaging recovery notes (PRN) from waste processing or handling companies. Each note corresponds to a tonne of recycled or recovered waste. So producers do pay something. But this puts the waste handlers in an interesting position. They buy waste from collectors such as LAs, who collect it from our homes and businesses and they sell PRNs to packaging producers. If processors charged producers more for PRNs they could pay collectors more, but the market for PRNs is more competitive than it is for the physical waste, simply because it costs more to transport waste long distances whereas it costs nothing to transfer a PRN across the country. The upshot is that producers pay less than 10% of the costs of collecting, sorting and handling their packaging waste. This applies to all kinds of packaging waste, not just plastic but aluminium and steel cans, glass, paper and wood too.

In other countries producers pay more and are motivated to make recycling easier.
The UK is the cheapest country in Europe for packaging. In France and Germany, producers pay at least six times more [1]. Also, in other countries, producers have an incentive to design their packaging to be easier to recycle. The report recommends we reform our producer responsibility compliance scheme along these lines.

Wrapping PET in a label makes recycling difficult.
The main factor that makes bottles difficult to recycle is that they aren’t just made of PET; in practice they often have sleeves of another material added as a label. It is possible to print directly onto the bottle but sleeves are often cheaper than direct printing, especially for smaller volumes. Plus you can have more colours on a sleeve [4]. This makes recycling difficult because the label hides the PET and at some point it has to be separated and handled in a different way. Lucozade was ‘named and shamed’ for their labels by the Recycling Association on BBC’s Breakfast Show earlier this year. Apparently the Lucozade Sport bottle sleeve totally confuses the recycling separator machines and even the standard bottle uses a sleeve that needs specialist recycling processes. They have since promised a review of their packaging [5]. The parliamentary committee recommends reducing the number and type of plastics as well as a structure of fees that incentivises simpler packaging.

Setting a minimum for recycled content would build the market.
Another important recommendation is to build a market for recycled PET by setting a minimum target for its use. Currently recycled PET is more expensive than virgin PET, even though it takes only a quarter as much energy to make. Apparently Coca-Cola have promised a minimum of 50% recycled material by 2025 and Ribena bottles are already 100% recycled. The report recommends a minimum of 50% recycled content on new bottles by 2023.

Bottled water costs 30 times more than tap water, and it may just be filtered tap water anyway.
There are also recommendations to reduce our reliance on bottled water. Of the 13 billion plastic bottles sold in this country every year, 57% contain just water. Obviously bottled water is more expensive than tap water; the cheapest you can get is probably Tesco ‘everyday value’: 2 litres for 17p. From the tap this would cost you less than 0.5p. However, some people don’t like to drink tap water. If you are one, consider filtered water instead (BRITA claims using their filters generates 27 times less GHG emissions than bottled water [6]), or just leave a jug of plain tap water in the fridge for a while so the chlorine evaporates. In fact, the 'everyday value' water from Tesco is tap water that has been 'treated to remove chlorine, further filtered, then bottled' [7].

Currently only licensed premises are required to supply tap water for free.
For those of us who are happy to drink tap water, we often still don’t when we are away because there isn’t a tap handy. You can ask for tap water for free in any licensed premises – this rule was imposed to encourage people to drink water alongside alcoholic drinks. However, there is no such rule for other places. The report recommends that all premises selling food and/or drink should be required to supply water for free. Back in 2015 Selfridges in London stopped selling water in single use bottles and started selling refillable bottles instead, that you can fill at their free fountain [8]. Now Pret a Manger is trying out a scheme where they sell reusable glass bottles and have a tap with filtered water for you to fill them [9].

A bottle deposit scheme only tackles part of the problem.
A bottle deposit scheme is one way to increase recycling of plastic bottles but it only tackles part of the problem and it isn’t necessarily the cheapest way. This is why it seems to me these other recommendations are at least as important. Together they:
  • reduce demand for bottles
  • build a market for the recycled product
  • shift the cost of recycling onto the companies that produce the packaging
  • incentivise producers to make recycling cheaper.

[1] Turning back the plastic tide (www.parliament.uk) Dec 2017
[2] Plastics market situation report (WRAP) Spring 2016
[3] Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise (Guardian) Dec 2017
[4] Bottle Screen Printing vs. Clear Bottle Labels: When To Use One Or The Other (The Label Link) May 2016
[5] Lucozade posed to change ‘villainous’ packaging after recycling criticism (Guardian) Dec 2017
[6] For the environment. BRITA: inventor of cartridge recycling (BRITA)
[7] Tesco and Asda deny claims that own-brand bottled water is in fact tap water (Independent) Aug 2012
[8] Selfridges bans plastic water bottles in an oceans conservation ininitiative (Guardian) Jul 2015
[9] What if Pret stopped selling plastic water bottles (Pret a manger) Oct 2017

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