23 July 2018 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal
The UK's approach to calculating packaging recycling rates is not sufficiently robust, and government appears not to have faced up to underlying recycling issues, says a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Reducing waste and using resources more efficiently are long-standing objectives for the government, and tackling packaging waste is essential to achieving these ambitions.
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that the UK has exceeded its overall packaging recycling target every year since 1997 and recycled 64 per cent of packaging in 2017. But the NAO has found that these figures do not account for the risk of undetected fraud and error.
A key government initiative to ensure that packaging is recycled - the packaging recycling obligation system - has subsidised waste exports to other parts of the world without adequate checks to make sure that it is recycled. Defra also has no evidence that the system has encouraged companies to minimise the use of packaging or make it easy to recycle.
The packaging regulations create a complex market-based system to meet packaging recycling targets. They require companies that handle over 50 tonnes of packaging a year and have a turnover higher than £2 million to demonstrate that they have recycled a certain amount of packaging by obtaining recovery evidence notes from accredited UK reprocessors and companies exporting waste for recycling abroad. In 2017, 7002 companies registered and paid a total of £73 million towards the cost of recycling packaging.
The report identifies that the Environment Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the system's regulations in England, has fallen well short of its targets for inspections. In 2016-17 the agency only carried out 40 per cent of planned compliance visits to reprocessors and exporters to check they accurately report the amount of packaging recycled.
The risk that companies over-claim is potentially more acute for exporters than for UK-based recycling companies, with risks that some exported material is not recycled under equivalent standards to the UK and is instead sent to landfill or contributes to pollution. Yet exporters rated as high-risk were less likely to receive a compliance visit than those rated low-risk.
The agency has also identified a large number of companies that may have an obligation to pay into the system but have not registered. It does not have a good understanding of how significant the financial risk could be.
Defra has committed to reform the system as part of a new strategy for waste and resources. The NAO recommends that Defra should improve its approach to calculating packaging recycling rates. It should also do more to tackle the risks associated with waste being exported for recycling overseas.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "If the UK wants to play its part in fully tackling the impacts of waste and pollution, a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed. Twenty years ago, the government set up a complex system to subsidise packaging recycling, which appears to have evolved into a comfortable way of meeting targets without addressing the fundamental issues. The government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas."