7th March 2018

Official UK data routinely overestimates plastic packaging waste recycling, report claims

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The UK consistently overestimates how much plastic packaging waste is recycled, according to a report by the waste consultancy Eunomia.

Official statistics state that in 2015 UK households and businesses produced 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste and that almost 39 per cent of it was recycled, well above the EU target of 22.5 per cent. However, by analysing what is known about the composition of waste, researchers found that the real amount of plastic packaging waste was much higher – about 3.5 million tonnes.

If the reported amount of recycled plastic was correct, this would mean that the real recycling rate was 9 to 10 percentage points lower than the government figures. The UK may have failed to meet its recycling targets under the EU directive between 2008 and 2012, Eunomia claimed.

Its report,  Plastic Packaging – Shedding Light on the UK Data,  goes on to identify where problems occur in the system. One major issue highlighted is that when material is “placed on the market” it is clean, dry and free from extraneous material such as labels. However, when the quantity collected for recycling is measured, the weight is likely to be inflated by the inclusion of moisture and contaminants. That might be the source of some of the over-reporting, it is claimed.

Another alleged problem is that the packaging producer responsibility system is designed to deliver compliance with recycling targets at the lowest possible cost to industry. In some other European countries, producers meet the full cost of household recycling systems. However, the report suggests that the UK system means that businesses cover at most 10 per cent of the cost of providing the household recycling service they rely on to deliver compliance.

Official data on the quantity of plastic packaging placed on the market is also derived from producer “compliance schemes” rather than being produced independently. The report points out that the lower the figure for the amount of packaging placed on the market, the lower the amount of material that needs to be recycled to meet the targets, keeping down the costs of compliance to industry.

Eunomia’s chairman, Dominic Hogg, said: “It’s not really surprising to find that the UK’s recycling rate for plastics is not as good as is claimed. The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost, rather than achieving high quality recycling of plastic packaging. The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures. The existing system of producer responsibility is failing. It has allowed problems with plastic packaging to grow, and it in its most basic responsibility – demonstrating compliance with a target – the data cannot be trusted.”

Adrian Hawkes, spokesman for Valpack, the main operator of a group of compliance firms for plastic recycling, said that there was no evidence of producers deliberately under-reporting their plastic production.

He said robust systems were in place to develop reasonable estimates of the total packaging placed on the market.

“We are confident in our information because it is based on very detailed and comprehensive data representing over 50 per cent of UK packaged goods sales,” he told BBC News.

“We use the UK’s largest and most comprehensive database of packaging weights covering hundreds of thousands of different products to calculate the total tonnage of packaging put on the market.”

He added that its calculations were audited by the Environment Agency and pointed out that providing false data is an offence.