Recycled packaging 'may end up in landfill', warns watchdog

By Roger Harrabin
BBC environment analyst

Plastic wasteImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Your yoghurt carton might be buried in landfill

You try to be virtuous, wiping the curdling yoghurt off a plastic pot, then putting it in the recycling bin.

Perhaps you envisage the pot eventually re-incarnated as a frisbee or maybe even a plastic bench.

But don’t rest easy. Your pot might get burned or buried in landfill, and you’d never know.

The National Audit Office (NAO) says over half of the packaging reported as recycled is actually being sent abroad to be processed.

As a result, it says, the government has little idea of whether the recyclables are getting turned into new products, buried in landfill or burned.

While an illusion of success has been created by the UK’s system for recycling packaging, the NAO says, the reality may be quite different.

Its report finds that:

  • The government has turned a blind eye to underlying problems with the waste system
  • Firms may be over-stating the amount they are recycling
  • The Environment Agency has only carried out 40% of the recycling checks it planned to

Exporting our waste

The UK is said to have increased recycling from under a third in 1998 to nearly two thirds last year, easily beating the EU target.

It sounds good.

But the NAO says most of the recorded increase in recycling has been due to the UK exporting its waste problem.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, is already on record saying the UK has got to stop exporting its dirt.

Reducing waste and using resources better, as well as tackling packaging waste is key to that.

The environment department Defra estimates that UK packaging recycling rates have increased from 31% in 1998 to 64% in 2017. That beats the EU target of 55%.

But since 2002 the quantity of packaging waste exported has increased six-fold, whilst the quantity recycled in the UK has remained the same.

What’s more, the figures don’t take into account the risk of undetected fraud and error.

The NAO says there’s nothing to prove that packaging sent for recycling actually gets recycled.

Nor does Defra have evidence that the system has done what it’s supposed to have done by encouraging companies to minimise their use of packaging or make it easy to recycle.

The NAO's report found only 25% of the firms most likely to misbehave over re-processing or exporting waste are inspected, while just 40% of planned compliance visits were actually carried out.

An Environment Agency spokesperson, said "where we find any evidence of fraud or error in data reported to us, we remove that information from the overall packaging recycling data and calculations".

'Tighter grip'

But Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said "a tighter grip on packaging recycling is needed".

“Twenty years ago, the government set up a complex system to subsidise packaging recycling, which appears to have evolved into a comfortable way of meeting targets without addressing the fundamental issues.

“The government should have a much better understanding of the difference this system makes and a better handle on the risks associated with so much packaging waste being recycled overseas."

Currently large firms handling over 50 tonnes of packaging a year need to show they have recycled a certain amount of packaging.

They do this by paying for a credit note - a Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) - from a recycling firm to contribute to improving recycling.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
UK consumers use around 13 billion plastic drinks bottles a year but more than three billion are not recycled

Defra says the scheme raised £50m in 2016. The cash was to be used for "capacity building" in the recycling system through increasing collection and processing of recyclables.

But critics say the scheme is so opaque it is hard to tell exactly how the money is spent.

Local councils, which have to run waste collection and litter services, complain they don’t see a penny of it.

A government spokesman says that scheme has increased recycling rates "significantly".

“However, there is much more to do. We don’t recycle enough waste, and we export too much of it.

“That’s why we have already committed to overhaul the system, and we will set out our reforms in the Resources and Waste Strategy later this year.”

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin