Programme Manager on the New Plastics Economy Team, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
To solve the problem of packaging waste and pollution, we need to recycle all packaging that cannot be eliminated or reused. However, the recycling system isn’t working.
Currently, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, while almost a third ends up in the environment. To make recycling work, the economics have to stack up.
The trouble is, collecting, sorting and recycling packaging costs more than the price recyclers can get for recycled materials — there is a net cost. In order to attract investment and meaningfully scale recycling as a solution, that cost needs to be covered, so the process becomes profitable.
Retaining responsibility for packaging
The only proven way to generate dedicated, ongoing and sufficient funding to cover this cost is through schemes where the companies putting packaged products on the market remain responsible for packaging after its use. They are required to pay for its collection, sorting and recycling — such schemes are called extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.
This is a well-known and well proven policy tool. It is already in place in many countries around the world, including Japan, South Korea and most EU member states.
We have to eliminate the packaging we don’t need and innovate towards new packaging, products and business models to design out waste
It has been proven to drive up recycling rates and could deliver a host of other benefits, such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and incentives for companies to design more easily recyclable packaging or even design out single-use packaging altogether.
Increasing industry support
There is also growing support across a wide variety of stakeholders, including, importantly, the businesses themselves who would have to pay. Major industry players, such as Nestlé and Unilever, have publicly expressed their support for mandatory EPR schemes.
Here in the UK, momentum is growing as well, the Government has committed to introduce packaging EPR, as mentioned in the Queen’s speech, and recently held a public consultation.
However, it is important to keep in mind that recycling is not the only solution. We have to eliminate the packaging we don’t need and innovate towards new packaging, products and business models to design out waste — such as reusable packaging. Only then will we create a circular economy where packaging stays in the economy and out of the environment.