A taxing problem: producing packaging with recycled plastics
From 2022, businesses in the UK will have to pay tax on every tonne of plastic packaging they use that does not contain a significant amount of recycled content. Geoff Lu, general manager and VP Europe at Selig, a global provider of induction heat seals, outlines the commercial and technical challenges they will face as they look to use more recycled plastic in their packaging.
The human Covid-19 pandemic gave businesses plenty to worry about in 2020 and the UK Government’s plan to introduce a tax on plastic packaging – published in November of that year – could add significantly to their troubles.
In many ways, plastic packaging has become a victim of its own success. It is light and cheap to produce and is exceptionally durable, but while this latter property makes it fantastic at protecting contents, such as our food and drink, it also means that discarded plastic packaging has become ubiquitous in the environment.
Indeed, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, only 14% of all plastic packaging produced globally is collected for recycling after use and, if the current trend continues, there could be more plastic than fish (by weight) in the ocean by 2050.
In the face of such findings, and increasing pressure from NGOs, the general public and sections of the media, governments around the world are beginning to act. In the UK, the Plastic Packaging Tax, through which plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled content will incur a tax of £200 per tonne used, will come into force in April 2022.
The aim of this tax, according to the UK Government, is to create an economic incentive for businesses to use more recycled material in the production of plastic packaging, which – in turn – will drive demand for this material. This will spur the collection and recycling of plastic waste, diverting it away from landfills or incineration and, ultimately, the environment.
At first glance, the tax might seem eminently sensible, but businesses will face significant technical and commercial challenges as they look to work with it. Further, unless great care is taken, the tax could prove to be counterproductive in its aim of reducing the impact that human activity has on the planet.
Eco-friendly packaging has almost become the bare minimum.
The technical and practical challenges associated with the use of new plastics for the production of packaging are numerous. Firstly, the plastics currently in use demonstrate excellent barrier properties that have improved the safety, extended the shelf life, and reduced the waste of products, such as food and pharmaceuticals. Alternatives must impart the same benefits, too.
Secondly, while it is relatively simple to incorporate recycled content into rigid plastics such as those used for trays, doing the same for flexibles and films presents a huge challenge.
Thirdly, for the packaging of food, there are very few suitable and approved materials available, and – even before the UK terminated its relationship with the European Union – new approvals took a long time to obtain. Food manufactures could therefore be forced to pay taxes for lack of viable, approved alternatives to the packaging materials they currently use.
Finally, developers of packaging need to be confident that there will be a long-term supply of high-quality recycled plastic for them to use in new packages. In the UK, the infrastructure for recycling plastics is poor and disjointed. Different local authorities class different plastics as recyclable or non-recyclable, and it is the general public who – in the first instance, at least – is responsible for sorting them.
Given the sheer diversity of plastics on the market and the myriad of labels used to indicate their recyclability, this task is tricky to carry out correctly, which can create issues further down the recycling chain. In addition, household plastics can be contaminated with everything from food waste to weedkiller and, as such, it is difficult to ensure that they are cleaned sufficiently for their recycling and re-use in such as food-contact applications.
The bags and boxes that brands’ products arrive in will become just as much a part of the product as the item itself.
The tax could also have a number of unintended consequences. Competition for supplies of recycled material will explode, driving-up prices.
Further, complying with the tax will place a large administrative burden on industries that use plastic packaging. Business’ will need to familiarise themselves with the new rules, train staff, register with HMRC, develop the required reporting framework to complete tax returns, keep records and, ultimately, file returns leading to greater administration cost.
Further, while plastic packaging that is exported will not attract the tax, sites will need to become registered export premises to qualify for these exemptions and will have to manage goods from a packaging perspective throughout much of the supply chain. This will require coordination between businesses handling the goods and a much freer flow of information than before.
Finally, in its rush to increase the amount of recycled content in plastic packaging, there is a risk that the government might push companies into using alternative materials that do a poorer job of preventing spoilage – thereby increasing waste. Food and pharmaceuticals, for instance, are much more resource-intensive to produce than plastic packaging, so striking the correct balance is key.
On a similar note, the tax might also encourage producers to use alternatives such as cardboard and paper that, while biodegradable, might have a greater impact on the environment when viewed through the lens of a life-cycle assessment.
Of course, the tax could be a positive development and such measures have been successful in the past; the soft drinks levy, for instance, encouraged companies to reduce the sugar content in their beverages. Likewise, businesses that currently rely on plastic packaging are willing to make changes, but the UK Government should ensure that they have the necessary tools for the job.
Investments are needed to improve the recycling infrastructure in the UK and, in the case of food-contact materials, the approvals process needs to be sped-up. Exemptions could be made for plastic packaging materials for which there is no viable alternative.
Ultimately, the tax will cost businesses significant amounts of money and these charges would likely be passed on to consumers. As such, it would be a shame if the scheme were to fail to make a significant environmental impact owing to a lack of joined-up thinking from legislators.