It’s time for us all to take more responsibility for our waste

5 March 2018

First published by 2Degrees Network

The time has come for the UK to take more responsibility for its own waste. We should do this not only because China has stopped accepting low quality waste imports, or because post-Blue Planet there is unprecedented will to prevent waste from polluting the environment, but because we have a duty to ensure our waste is dealt with responsibly, whether in the UK or overseas, and because it is in our own economic interest to do things differently.

In the year 2000, we were recycling around 10 per cent of household waste in the UK. Today it’s over 45 per cent. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without exporting some of our materials for recycling. But as the demand from other countries for the UK’s waste materials diminishes, and as we become more aware of the downside of exporting low quality waste to countries with inconsistent enforcement of waste regulations, it is clear that the current model is no longer fit for purpose.

At WRAP, our mission is to create a world where resources are used sustainably. To realise this, we want to use our expertise and convening power to design circular systems for plastics, electricals, textiles and other materials that are sustainable both economically and environmentally. To do this requires some fundamental changes from the UK Government through the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, from devolved governments, from businesses and from citizens.

A model fit for the future
So what would a more sustainable system look like?

Firstly, there needs to be a greater focus on designing products for longer life, and to be reused and recycled, so that producers consider the long-term environmental impacts of their products and packaging from the outset. Whether it’s helping supermarkets review the trade-offs between food waste and packaging, advising clothing designers how to design for longevity, or researching the pros and cons of biodegradable plastics, WRAP is facilitating this change. We are collaborating with businesses to help them design products that help us to keep precious resources in circulation for as long as possible, while minimising carbon emissions and other environmental impacts such as waste polluting our countryside and oceans.

Secondly, once products and packaging have been used, we have to improve how they are collected and sorted for recycling in order to ensure that we have quality materials to sell. To support this, WRAP proposes that recycling should be driven by quality considerations alongside the current weight-based targets. Weight-based targets can encourage local authorities to collect heavy materials such as garden waste which, while valuable in itself, is not driving up the quality of recycled materials. Quality is key to ensuring that materials are valuable, easy to recycle and have a commercially sustainable end market.

Once collected and sorted, our waste materials need to be delivered to a thriving and commercially successful UK recycling sector. The demand for our waste materials from other countries is increasingly volatile, and in light of this we need to increase the demand for some recycled materials at home through a renewed focus on developing end markets. WRAP has worked on market development for recycled materials successfully in the past, for example in its work to de-risk investment in closed loop recycling for plastic bottles, and can do so again with the right policy framework.

Change by governments
To create a model that is fit for purpose for the future, the framework underpinning recycling needs to drive the right kinds of behaviours, for example through reform of the current packaging producer responsibility regulations, and specifically through making changes to the PRN system. WRAP is leading an industry consultation on this to agree a set of recommendations to be put forward to Government.  In the longer term, we need to establish a well-focused Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme that encourages the most sustainable environmental behaviours while discouraging the worst.

Change by businesses
WRAP is also taking the lead in driving change with businesses through its voluntary agreements. Later in the spring, we will be launching a new cross-sector plastics initiative that will bring businesses, NGOs and others together to take collaborative voluntary action. This sector agreement has the full backing of the UK Government and is included in the 25-Year Environment Plan.  It provides an opportunity for business to demonstrate to Government and to the public the leadership it is taking to respond to the challenge.

Change by citizens
WRAP already runs the UK’s national recycling campaign, Recycle Now, and we continue to use this to help people understand why and how to recycle. While this issue of plastic waste is very much in the spotlight Recycle Now is currently capturing citizen’s attention with a new hard-hitting digital campaign. We are also exploring how to engage consumers with a new campaign specifically on plastics as part of the cross-sector plastics initiative. An important part of this will be to impassion citizens to change how they purchase, use and dispose of plastic packaging, explaining the value of plastic as well as how to recycle it.

Environmental and economic benefits
Environmental and economic sustainability need to work hand in hand. The current challenges we face provide us with the perfect opportunity to create jobs and wealth in the UK, while reducing carbon emissions and ensuring that we protect our oceans, beaches and countryside from pollution. It’s time for change.