September 28, 2021

With less than a year to the implementation of the Plastic Packaging Tax, what are the challenges?

In less than a year, on 1st April 2022, the Government will introduce a new Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) in a bid to reduce the use and reliance on plastic packaging and contribute towards a circular economy. In the same way that the plastic bag tax has led to major changes in consumer behaviour since its introduction back in 2015, PPT is believed to have the potential for similar effects – but for retailers.

The current system in place means that suppliers of packaging such as paper, plastic, wood and metal pay a levy on the amount of materials they use or supply. This system was set up in the mid-1990s and was supposed to encourage the development and expansion of recycling companies in the UK.

However, this didn’t really go to plan. Waste processors realised that it was more beneficial to them to export plastic waste rather than reprocess it. Moreover, it has grossly oversimplified the system as there is no distinction made between the many different types of plastic packaging that exist today.

Today’s proposed PPT will mean that retailers will be taxed based on how much plastic they are using to package their products. The exception to this tax will be if at least 30% (by weight) of the packaging is composed of recycled plastic.

In theory, it sounds like a positive step in the right direction. And whilst it is, it doesn’t come without its challenges.  Sustainable packaging company, Tyler Packaging, explores these challenges.

A lack of recycling infrastructure

Unfortunately, the tax does not recognise the supply constraints of recycled plastic. Currently, in the UK and Europe, the availability of recycled plastic is low. There are also major question marks surrounding whether, in our current capacity, the UK can handle the significant growth of plastic waste it will need to process to meet demand in just over a year.

Not all plastic packaging is currently collected for recycling by councils and waste management companies (only 17.6% of the UK collect curbside). The Government does not plan to address this until 2023/4 – long after the current deadline of 2022 for the introduction of PPT.

Research shows that the UK may need to actually double its output of recycled plastic to meet governmental targets. This lack of capacity means that many companies may struggle to secure recycled material, particularly SME’s, leaving them in a difficult and unfair position if they cannot compete with larger brands.

Not all plastic packaging can include recycled content

Whilst all plastics can be recycled, there are barriers to recycling some types. Currently, 25% of the plastic packaging supplied within the UK is incapable of incorporating the 30% recycled content that the Government is proposing.

For example, medical packaging is not permitted to contain recycled content. Due to food safety laws, the same goes for some food and drink packaging. This packaging needs to meet BRC/IoP standards in order to be durable and hygienic and above all, to ensure that the products contained within the packaging are suitable for human consumption.

This can be an issue for recycled plastic. To tackle this, some packaging may need to be made thicker and potentially of multi-materials. This then introduces a set of further problems for recyclers, as well as potentially using more plastic to make the packaging.

For this reason, the PPT should not be based simply upon whether an item contains recycled plastic or not. This is unfair and would only result in retailers adding extra costs down the line for consumers to cover the charges incurred by the PPT, with no increase in the use of recycled plastic. Instead, the PPT should ensure that resource efficiency is incorporated alongside the amount of recycled material used and the recyclability of the product.

Plastic alternatives are expensive

There’s a reason why plastic packaging has become such an important material for industries and businesses globally. Plastic has many benefits, one being its significant contribution to avoiding food waste, for example as it increases shelf life.

In order for a company to move away from plastic packaging completely, companies would need to invest in more environmentally friendly alternatives; such as compostable packaging. If more companies were to convert to materials such as this, these materials would in turn become more accessible. This shift would make the supply chain easier for recyclers and create raw material for the market, driving towards the ultimate goal of a circular economy.

Arguably, the reason why this is not happening is that these environmentally friendly alternatives are substantially more expensive than normal plastics.  It may actually work out cheaper for a packaging user to simply pay the tax instead. As a result, companies may choose to continue to use environmentally unfriendly forms of plastic packaging.

Additionally, there are plenty of alternative materials out there that are potentially even worse for the environment than plastic. Glass bottles, for instance, being many times heavier than a plastic alternative are much more polluting when transported. This is because the quantity of product transported in glass is much less than the equivalent weight of plastic packaging. Paper bags tend to have higher carbon emissions during manufacture than plastic bags and are difficult to reuse. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the PPT could potentially end up having the opposite effect on the environment.

Whilst the PPT is widely supported, there are a few issues that need to be addressed first. The enemy is not plastic, it is mismanaged plastic waste, and PPT offers an opportunity to address this. Much is going on behind the scenes to ensure changes to the design of the PPT. After all, if it does not have the desired effect on retailers, it stands little chance of contributing towards a circular economy.