The wrong loop…

Dick SearleLast week I promised more on the Government’s recent consultation about the UK’s material recycling targets. Indeed, these are issues that will run and run and will deserve our regular attention in this column.

My focus this week is the assumption within the legislature that the ‘products’ of the packaging sector, however defined, should always contain a measure of recycled materials. Where general resource efficiency and cost effectiveness apply – we agree.

In fact, for decades these recycling practices have been applied in packaging, largely unsung and unnoticed. The reason? It just makes good business sense to reuse and recycle; from the days of the door step milk bottle to paper and board industries to metals and cans, to utility plastics goods where consumer safety is not compromised.

The recycling model works in all cases where the supply and cost of recycled materials allows them to be factored back into a product, any product, which can then be sold to the consumer at a competitive price. The recyclate and the consumer products sink or swim in a free market in the usual way. Let’s be clear, anything else is doomed.

Today of course, the ancillary aim is to replace the general stock of virgin or new materials with second life materials in products. No problem whatsoever with that.

However, in keeping an eye on this aim it is not possible, practical or even helpful to make a number of ‘end-use’ sectors responsible for the job – least of all packaging which is not an end use sector at all but a part of all manufactured goods.

All manufacturing – construction; automotive; white and brown goods, healthcare; food and drink – has a self-interested role to play in resource efficiency. More than ever we need to step back and take a holistic view of waste and recycling within the whole economy. In this sense SIC coded divisions within it – and their related recycling targets – are artificial and unhelpful.

There is of course one organic driver to the whole – and that is the consumer. Consumers decide and drive our market economies. They also determine the real appetite for recycled content products by voting with their wallets. And while the consumer appetite for green style products was always a minority interest, it is clear now that even that demand has waned in the last 2/3 years.

Supermarkets have shown us the picture – based on obvious reasons of price, recession and affordability. Green products – often premium price with recyclate content or messages – are now stocked less. General and supermarketing talk of carbon footprinting and labeling of packaging and products has now largely disappeared – at least in the UK.  Practical considerations, and the huge costs involved, are reasserting themselves.

Our Government – and the wider European framework – should take note. I suggest that new strategies and a new mind set is needed.

Until things change, let’s assume the following:

Consumers, to date at least, cannot be relied upon in any way to drive or guarantee resource efficiency or the uptake of recycled materials other than through usual market forces and conditions.

Producers and manufacturers should not be made to create artificial markets or bear costs for recyclate where it is uncompetitive and unwanted.

We need a fresh and holistic view about resource efficiency in and across all manufacturing and all supply chains.

That would be a start. And we’re certainly ready to play our full part.

Thanks again

Dick Searle