Packaging, Plastics, Policy – Responsible Brands and the need for innovative packaging design and recycling solutions.

Everyone has seen David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. It was responsible for highlighting our global reliance on plastic and the impact it is having all over the world, especially in our oceans. The hit show has without doubt cast a spotlight on the problem and hugely increased the general public’s environmental awareness. Despite this, according to an experiment by two universities, (Imperial College London and the University of Oxford) ‘Blue Planet effect’ did not translate into a change in consumer behaviour.

The beauty industry is seen as a major plastic polluter, and one which is undergoing radical transformation due to the ripple effect of the rise of the socially responsible consumer. While consumers may not be ready to fully ditch plastic just yet, they are demanding more sustainable packaging and recycling options, as well as full transparency on ingredients and sourcing, from the beauty and hair care brands. As we start to see brands engage more in the sustainability conversation (and some are doing much better than others) let’s take a look at how Government and policy is set to change the landscape.

Beauty and Hair care brands contribute to the cost of recycling of packaging material they handle (if they hit a minimum turnover and tonnage threshold) via the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations. Brands that handle packaging pay a proportion towards the costs of recycling and recovery through buying ‘evidence’ of recycling taking place elsewhere. ‘Evidence’ is in the form of PRN’s (packaging recovery note) or PERN’s (packaging export recovery note) which are sold by accredited recycling companies who recycle and reprocess packaging materials.  PRN’s are sold by material stream and the market can be volatile, the number of PRN’s that are sold by recyclers are limited to the equal number of tonnes they recycle. So if the amount of recycling in the UK is less than the demand for PRN’s then the value drops but if not enough recycling is taking place the PRN can sky rocket making it difficult for brands to budget for this levy. 2020 has seen a monumental drop in plastic PRN’s with several factors suggested being the reasoning behind the huge drop.

The packaging regulations have been in effect since 1997 and were introduced with the aim of reducing the amount of packaging waste ending up in landfill. It works on the principle that the producer pays for the environmental impact of the packaging they handle and are putting out into the market. With additional factors that contribute to a company’s obligation under these regulations (volume and type of packaging handled, the UK’s recycling target for each material stream, where the company sits within the packaging chain), these regulations can be complex to understand. And there is a huge reform of these regulations on the horizon.

The UK’s Resources and Waste strategy was announced back in 2018 and we’ll see a major overhaul of the resource management sector in the coming years as the Government attempts to move the UK towards a circular economy model. The strategy includes 4 major reforms:

  • Consistency of Collections in an attempt to make household collections streamlined across the UK.
  • Deposit Return Schemes so we’ll start to see reverse vending machines pop up where we can return our drinking bottles for a deposit; which is taken at the point of sale.
  • Plastic Packaging Tax from April 2022 plastic packaging not containing at least 30% recycled content would be subject to a packaging tax
  • Producer responsibility regulations discussed above will become the Extended Producer Responsibility regulations.

Extended Producer Responsibility has had various rounds of consultation with industry feeding their position into Government and we don’t yet know how these regulations will be implemented. It is unclear if there will be a competitive market like we see now with various compliance schemes or if there will be a centrally managed Government run scheme? Will the PRN be done away with completely? We just don’t know. What we do know is that brands are set to see a huge increase in their costs under these regulations if they don’t take action now.

Currently, councils are picking up the tab for the mass of packaging which consumers discard into their household bins; with brands only picking up a proportion of these costs through the current Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste). But, in the not too distant future, the Extended Producer Responsibility Obligations will see the responsibility – and the full net cost – land with brands and businesses that are responsible for them being on the market.

These regulations are designed to force brands and businesses to take full responsibility for their packaging once it becomes waste. Businesses and brands will need to think innovatively when designing packaging to ensure recyclability or workable take back schemes.  Businesses and brands have a great opportunity here to engage with their loyal customers, and show who is leading in the sustainability conversations which could give them a competitive advantage. I’m sure we’ll see take back schemes and innovative packaging design start to filter through and this is so important to the ever increasing socially responsible consumer.

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