Producer pays — or producer profits?

Popularised by science fiction, the red pill and blue pill are polar opposites.  Take the red pill, and you live a life of brutal truths and harsh reality. Take the blue pill, and you live a life of blissful ignorance and illusion. Government legislation is currently ignoring the reality of recycling packaging waste.

It’s safe to say that the world is no longer ignorant to the environmental damage of plastic. Red pill swallowed, the Government is hot on the heels of packaging producers and retailers, to prevent further damage to the planet.

Evidence from WRAP suggests that 80 per cent of environmental damage caused by waste can be avoided by more thoughtful decisions at the design and production stage. To encourage more considered design of packaged goods, in December 2018 the UK announced a plan to force retailers and packaging producers to pay the full cost of collecting and recycling, under the new resources and waste strategy.

The ‘polluter pays’ concept is explained in the plan, which ensures producers are accountable for the full costs of packaging placed on the market, as part of extended producer responsibility (EPR).

The general tone of the report suggests recycling is a costly process — which it often is. For some materials, such as plastic, it’s a long process with little financial gain.  Sorting and processing plastic, which can greatly vary in quality and type, is very laborious. The pigment in black plastic, for example, cannot be detected by automated sorting equipment, so poses huge problems in recycling facilities. 

Yet producers of aluminium packaging would argue that recycling isn’t costly. Aluminium is the most valuable and most recyclable material that’s currently recyclable. It maintains its scrap value so well, that it pays for its own recycling and subsidizes that of other materials, such as plastic. There is always a buyer willing to purchase waste aluminium for recycling, which explains why this material isn’t polluting coastlines across the world.

As recycling aluminium is profitable, there aren’t any costs to retrieve from the producer. While the finer details of the ‘polluter pays’ legislation haven’t been finalised, the high value of aluminium must be recognised as part of the plan. Charging a retailer that uses plastic packaging the same as a retailer that uses aluminium packaging, would be ludicrous.

More positively, the Government is likely to recognise the high value of aluminium and implement the correct differentiation of charges. With lower or no charges for aluminium, there will be huge incentives for retailers to choose aluminium over plastic.  

If other countries follow suit, the proposed legislation is an opportunity to incentivise the use of more-recyclable materials across the world, while keeping the recycling process profitable and attractive. Less plastic waste and more aluminium ‘waste’ poses access to an extra pot of cash. These profits will no doubt benefit the food industry’s economy, as cash is retrieved from waste products.

The red pill represents reality, independent thought and knowledge of the wider world. We know aluminium is highly recyclable, but the reality is supermarket shelves are still dominated by plastic. As legislation is finalised to make the producer pay, we see this as an opportunity for aluminium producers to reap the benefits of choosing a sustainable material, and evade the charges posed to plastic producers.