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Gove, garbage and gauging the issue of waste and recycling

Jul 20, 2018 | Carton Packaging, Consumer, Corrugated Packaging, Market Research, Packaging, Packaging Research and Analysis, Plastic Packaging, Recycling

In this, the first in a series of articles examining waste and its impact on the environment, the consumer and the packaging industry, NOA looks at what’s happening at UK government level.

Michael Gove, erstwhile Education Secretary, then Justice Secretary, and now Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is nothing if not a Marmite figure – you love him or you hate.

At the Department for Education, he overhauled the National Curriculum; at the Ministry of Justice, he set his sights on prison reform. Now at Defra, he is looking at the whole system of tariffs for packaging producers.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, called Gove in Government, Michael Gove was championed not for his politics but for being a politician who – for better or worse – gets things done and in his latest role at Defra there’s no exception.

What is the tariff system?

If you’re in the packaging chain, then you’ll already be familiar with PRNs – or Packaging Waste Recovery Notes. But for those not in the know, here’s an idiot’s guide.

PRNs are a kind of currency in the recycling world, where producers of packaging need to meet Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations requirements.

In a nutshell, if you’re part of a packaging chain and you’re large enough to be affected by the regulations then you need to ‘purchase’ PRNs which go towards the cost of recycling packaging waste.

So what does Michael Gove have up his sleeve for the PRN system?

At the moment, it’s early days but there are discussions underway about its future and it is almost certain that at the heart is an intention to increase available funds for recycling.

At NOA we believe this will ultimately have an impact on packaging producers. As specialists in packaging market research, we will enjoy the task of evaluating exactly what kind of impact a reformed PRN system will have.

Currently, we think it could go one of two ways – maybe both!

Either the volume of packaging created will be reduced, or in some cases dispensed with altogether, in order for manufacturers to save costs; or any increased costs will be passed on down the supply chain and ultimately onto the consumer.

For certain, the UK (and most other countries in Europe) are looking very closely at current waste collection and recycling systems. There will be a need to invest in more and newer facilities in the UK and across Europe. It’s clear already that we cannot rely on China to take a notable share of our waste packaging.

This will have a positive impact on the percentage of packaging that gets recycled. Corrugated and cartons already have an excellent record, with well over 50% of former packaging product getting back into the paper mill manufacturing stream.

The downside is that PRNs could increasingly be the vehicle to gather funds to pay for this investment, and the inevitable increase in packaging costs will have to be passed on to consumers.

Whatever the outcome of the PRN discussions, you can be sure that Mr Gove will take the bull by the horns and strive to bring in any recommendations that he supports.

We don’t need to spell out the fact that there is a huge wave of public antipathy towards plastic packaging, particularly of food. The regular cry is “Why does my cucumber come plastic wrapped? Why are my kiwis in a plastic tray, enveloped in more film? Why do I need three apples to be collated in a plastic tube?” and similar sentiments.

Of course, unwrapped cucumbers, kiwis, apples et al have a shorter shelf-life, so without wrapping these short shelf-life food products there could be an increase in the volume of food waste. So packaging manufacturers really are being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Michael Gove’s probe into the PRN system is just one element of this huge debate that is affecting us all: waste, food waste, packaging, recycling and collection of packaging, the environment, saving the planet, preserving scarce resources.

There is no single solution, and we at NOA plan to take a look at other aspects of this fascinating hot topic and sharing our thoughts in future articles – after all, packaging industry research is what we do.

At NOA, we specialise in research, coaching and marketing services for the packaging industry. To find out how we can help with anything from research into packaging market trends, or to producing a corrugated packaging industry report, please get in touch.