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As the cost of living crisis hits, the Government must cut the cost of sustainable packaging

This Recycle Week, Paula Chin, WWF and chair of Link's Resources and Waste Group, and Link's Policy Officer Matthew Dawson, write that reusing and refilling items can deliver greater environmental benefits, yet a lack of Government action to lower costs means that recent progress could be under threat. Link's policy recommendations for greater reuse and refill are available in a new paper published today: Beyond bans: towards a new model of consumption

October 2022

It’s Recycle Week in the UK with a theme this year of “Let’s Get Real”. ‘Getting real’ when it comes to recycling means the Government must acknowledge some difficult truths about our current situation: the UK is living beyond planetary limits, recycling rates have plateaued in recent years and almost 2/3 of plastic packaging which is recycled is exported.

Recycling has a role to play in our waste system and it’s certainly preferable to sending waste to landfill or incineration. However, we have tended to over emphasise the need for full recycling bins, rather than tackling the problem at source, by reducing the amount of waste created in the first place.

At present, high levels of waste are driven by single use items appearing cheap, with the huge associated costs being borne by society rather than the companies putting them on the market. For example, household waste collections cost the public finances around £1 billion a year and ground litter costs are estimated at £200m a year.

The benefits of reusing and refilling

Reusing items, be that cups, nappies or other items, is the best way to tackle these costs and the associated environmental damages. Research has found that over the lifetime of a reusable piece of packaging, its carbon impact per use, its resource efficiency per gram and the likelihood of it being littered will all be favourable compared to a single-use item.

Encouragingly, over recent years, we’ve seen slow but important moves away from the consumption of single use items towards reuse and refill packaging. Zero waste shops have opened on many high streets, reusable bottles and coffee cups are much more commonplace, and supermarkets have embarked on reuse and refill packaging trials of their own.

However, as the cost of living crisis hits, there is a risk that what little progress has been made will be undone.

With many reuse and refill systems not currently deployed at scale, and because Government action to cut the cost of these choices has been minimal, consumers may view the sustainable option as a luxury they can no longer afford.

It is therefore vital that the Government acts as soon as possible to redress this, with urgent action to deliver affordable reuse and refill schemes across the country.

The public desire for change

Consumer research has indicated that the public understand this problem but find it hard to adopt reusable and refillable options. 83% of people say they would welcome greater access to refillable products and 60% of people in Britain think supermarkets are not doing enough to address plastic pollution and provide customers with reusable and refillable options.

Unfortunately, people who strive to do the right thing for the environment are often faced with higher costs: paying for their own reusable bottles, takeaway containers or cutlery, or paying for often more expensive zero packaging grocery deliveries.

Given the environmental benefits of these behaviours, it should not cost consumers more for sustainable options. Indeed, the present system excludes the most disadvantaged in society from choosing the most environmentally friendly choices.

To take one example, we’ve found that a high street chemist selling a popular brand of shampoo charges the equivalent of £1 per 100ml for the standard bottle, but £1.25 per 100ml for the refill pouch (see reuse report page 19).

Affordable reuse as the solution

The government has stated that “in line with the waste hierarchy…we would like to see a shift away from single-use items to reusable or refillable alternatives”. However, its existing policy proposals are failing to provide the clear signal businesses are looking for to invest in mainstreaming reuse systems.

We’ve set out a ten-point plan for promoting greater affordable reuse. Our recommendations include that Ministers:

  • Cut taxes on products and packaging sold as part of reuse and refill system activities. This could include VAT cuts on reusable packaging (such as coffee cups which are designed to be returned, washed and reused) to incentivise their commercialisation.
  • Ensure that packaging producers pay to transition the sector away from single use packaging. To achieve this, fees under the new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme should be weighted to reward reusable packaging and the scheme should invest in the development and commercialisation of reuse schemes to make these more affordable for consumers.
  • Disincentivise the worst offending items, ensuring proceeds are used to support affordable reuse schemes. The Government now has welcome new powers from the Environment Act to ensure businesses levy single-use item charges. Ministers can “require the publication or supply of records or information” relating to “the uses to which the net proceeds of the charge have been put.” The Government should ensure that these requirements are always adopted, requiring full public disclosure by businesses of how they have used funds raised from environmental charges, and ensuring businesses invest these proceeds into reuse and refill systems.
  • Deliver widespread availability of public water refill points so people can access free water on the go. Despite important work by NGOs such as CIty to Sea in providing information on refill points, there are still too few refill points in public spaces.
  • Provide a clear policy signal to businesses by setting reuse targets. At least 25% of consumer packaging should be reusable by 2025, increasing to 50% by 2030. At least 75% of transit (or secondary and tertiary) packaging should be reusable by 2025, increasing to 90% by 2030. To ensure reuse is delivering meaningful benefits, the life cycle loops of these items should be tracked using existing technologies like QR codes and block chain, to ensure the benefits of reuse are achieved.

So, this Recycle Week, let’s get real and remember that it’s reusing items that offers the best solution for a transition away from the current model of single-use consumption. If delivered in the right manner, moving to a reusable society would be greener, cleaner, and crucially more cost effective than our current system. It is essential that new Ministers swiftly deliver these changes, ensuring that the benefits of sustainable consumption are reflected in the cost at the check out.

To see Link’s proposals in full, the reuse and refill report is available here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.