The new environment secretary should look to rework the waste handling infrastructure before changing up ‘confusing’ recycling labels, according to packaging experts.
Speaking to The Times, newly appointed Theresa Villiers, who succeeded Michael Gove in Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle, said that one of her first projects at Defra would be to devise a clearer labelling system for what materials can and cannot be recycled.
According to the MP for Chipping Barnet, the current system and its variety of symbols is holding back the recycling rate as it confuses consumers.
“The means of delivering increased rates of recycling is ensuring that people have a better understanding of what is recyclable and how to do it,” she said.
“This is an important issue for us as government. We are working on clearer labels.”
PrintWeek spoke to experts in the packaging sector whose reflections indicated that an overhaul of the systems responsible for the collection, handling and recycling of waste was required before any changes were made to packaging and labels.
Key to the difficulty with devising a simpler labelling system is that some local authorities recycle materials that others don't.
Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle said: “The basic problem is that to label everything as either ‘recyclable’ or ‘non-recyclable’, you need consistency across local authorities. At present, we have the ‘check locally’ label, but it is a problem if some facilities do not exist in certain authorities.
“The infrastructure needs fixing before you do the labelling and Theresa Villiers needs to be sure she is having conversations with her colleagues across government to deal with the whole problem.
“One thing missing from all of these consultations is the notion of citizen responsibility. If people do not get involved in the recycling system but expect to continue to live the way they do, there is a problem. Leadership and legislation should come ahead of packaging.”
A number of consultations and initiatives to increase the recycling rate and improve the waste system have been launched recently, though Searle and BPIF Cartons general manager Jon Clark both said that these processes were moving too slowly at present.
Resources charity WRAP and the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) launched a strategic partnership in March in a bid to achieve 70% plastic packaging recycling by 2025 and 70% general packaging recycling by 2030.
OPRL is also carrying out its own review on how to make labels clearer.
Defra launched its own consultation in February to overhaul the waste system under Gove’s tenure, which is expected to continue under Villiers.
Clark said: “Bearing in mind that we do not have regionalised packaging, it is often that a product recyclable under one local authority is not under another. Hopefully the government is taking this into account with its consultation on the domestic system, but that may not come into play until 2023.
“Our position at BPIF Cartons is that no changes should be made to the labelling system until the whole house is put in order, and the main issue is who they ask. Our view is that there is good fibre in all cartons that can be recovered and reused.
“It is vital that material segregation is carried out in the domestic supply chain, so labelling will be important. It is a split-second decision for a consumer so clarity is needed.”