UK Waste Consultations: Missed Opportunities for the Bioeconomy

Posted in: biobased

The recent Defra consultations into UK waste collection saw the bioeconomy snubbed.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the modern economy without plastic. So essential a material it has become, with a wide variety of uses, that any efforts to move towards a more sustainable world will require a consideration of how to include plastics therein. The bioeconomy offers several ways to make plastics more sustainable: biobased plastics offer a renewable solution for producing plastics, whilst also acting carbon sinks by “locking in” carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants whose biomass they are made from, while compostable plastics can be disposed of alongside organic waste, reducing end-of-life pollution caused by plastics when they are disposed of, and reducing the level of plastic contamination in compost – an important factor to consider when utilising compost, as plastic contamination can drastically reduce soil quality.

As with any aspect of sustainability, policy support is usually required for any meaningful change in habits to occur. To this end, the UK government published a consultation in early 2019, seeking stakeholder views on a number of issues relating to waste collection in the UK. The primary focus of the consultation was on harmonising the materials that are collected for recycling in the UK, ensuring the same materials are collected everywhere. This “core set” of materials is not necessarily relevant to the bioeconomy, but food waste definitely is: development of regulation surrounding food waste collection is critical to allow compostable plastics to shine. Thusly, one outcome of the consultation that could have been of interest to the bioeconomy would have been legislation surrounding compostable plastics being included in food waste. Such a policy is already in place in the Greater Manchester area, wherein compostable liners are filled with food waste and collected. This has demonstrated how compostable plastics increase the amount of food waste collected, and also critically reduce the amount of plastic contamination in food waste and the resulting compost. Unfortunately, Defra’s response makes no mention of compostable plastics, but also doesn’t offer any concrete proposals with regard to food waste collection aside from stating local authorities should have separate food waste collections. Defra’s response offers plenty of scope for “further consideration”, which means the issue is not off the table yet.

Also of interest to the biobased products sector was another consultation run alongside the above: a consultation on the introduction of a “plastics tax” in the UK. Under this proposal, additional charges would be levied on any plastic, manufactured or imported, that does not contain at least 30% recycled content. The biobased products sector has a keen interest in this proposal, as the government has not yet confirmed its definition of “plastic” in this regard. The consultation document notes that incorporating recycled plastic is more expensive for manufacturers, but the same also applies to biobased plastics while biomass feedstocks remain more expensive than petroleum-based feedstocks. There is an argument to be made that since biobased and compostable plastics offer environmental benefits of their own, they should be considered as equivalent to recycled plastic in the terms of such a tax.

The government does not appear to agree, however. Noting the additional administrative burden brought about by differentiating biobased plastics, the government have, at this stage, elected to include biobased and compostable plastics under the umbrella of non-recyclable plastic with regard to the tax. The government does, however, note that further evidence may change this stance, and so biobased and compostable plastics’ inclusion remains “under review”. The tax itself will come into force in 2022, and so the biobased products sector will be seeking clarity on this issue before then.

Overall, then, the government’s responses to these consultations has been somewhat a damp squib, with nothing having changed in particular in the aftermath.

However, particularly in the latter case, a newly published consultation may offer some of the “further consideration” the government so seeks to undergo. In the wake of increasing demand for biobased products, particularly plastics, the government is looking to better understand the place these plastics have in a circular economy in the future – something that industrial standards can play a big part in, by defining that place. The Government is looking to introduce new suitable standards for biobased, biodegradable, and compostable plastics, while questioning the suitability of existing ones.

The Government’s Call for Evidence seeks scientific evidence regarding the relative sustainability of biobased and biodegradable plastics, specifically their contribution to (and how they can mitigate) avoidable plastic waste – which Defra seeks to eliminate – and in the case of biobased plastics, their relationship with carbon emissions. Of primary concern in the former case is timeframe: all plastics will eventually biodegrade, but Defra is concerned with how long this takes in various environmental conditions, which is obviously critical when assessing the pollution impact that biodegradable plastics can still have. In this regard, Defra is also interested in whether it would be worthwhile to establish industry standards in order to minimise any such pollution impacts from biodegradable plastics utilised in the UK.

No proposals are outlined in the consultation, but the responses will be used by Defra to inform future policy decisions with regard to biobased and biodegradable plastics. Responses must be submitted by the 14th of October, after which Defra will official respond in due course, hopefully clearing up the uncertainty.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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