Can the UK Plastic Tax help decarbonise the packaging industry?

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Plastic bottles

In February 2022, the OECD published a report on the global production, use and disposal of plastics. The Global Plastics Outlook report uses global, country and sector-level data to show how plastic production, use and waste has grown in recent decades. A key takeaway from this report is how plastics have significant carbon footprints, contributing to 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle, the majority of these being upstream. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, with 90% coming from their production and conversion from fossil fuels. Providing an incentive in the form of a tax to close material loops could reduce this footprint substantially.

Since 2017 the effects of plastic leakage and consumer pressure have been unavoidable. The OECD’s report revealed plastic production levels doubled between 2000 and 2019, with 460 million tonnes created in 2019. Currently just 9% of plastic packaging is recycled, while 50% is sent to landfill and 19% is incinerated. Most of the remaining 22% likely ends up as polluting the natural environment. The OECD report said the main contributors are not plastics which remain in use for many years, but packaging, textiles and consumer products.

The UK’s first plastic tax

The 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy unveiled the UK’s first plastic tax, a key milestone for the packaging industry. On 1 April 2022 the plastic packaging tax, or PPT, came into effect. It aims to incentivise the use of recycled materials in plastic packaging made and sold in the UK. The tax rate is set at £200/tonne on plastic packaging made or imported with less than 30% recycled plastic. This tax is welcomed as a method to invigorate the recycled plastics market and encourage plastics to be effectively recycled and reincorporated. Plastic packaging should be designed to conform with common recycling technologies and reduce incompatibilities, for example reducing polymer types and colour choices. This would create enough collected waste to process, resulting in the high quality recyclate the industry will be asking for. 

In March 2022 the UN Environment Assembly agreed on the terms for a global treaty to stop plastic pollution. This made headlines as it began the process of forming a deal which could become the most important multilateral environmental pact since the Paris Agreement. The assembly focused on two main resolutions; the requirement to reduce plastic production, and scaling recycling and energy-from-waste. 

Reportedly, some of the world’s largest packaging producers urged Assembly delegates to “accept nothing less” than strong requirements to curb plastic pollution from the very start of the value chain. While the UK tax does not cap plastic production, it encourages the market towards recycled content. Previously recycled plastic has been financially unattractive due to expense and facilities. There is hope the introduction of this tax will help grow this market. 

Decarbonising the packaging industry

The use of recycled content not only provides a more circular solution to resources currently lost in the plastic sector, but also contributes to decarbonisation. It is true that plastic, when compared to other materials and within a closed loop, will often provide a lower carbon footprint. However, this is further decarbonised with the presence of recycled content. Research into the manufacture of plastic trays found that by using recycled content, carbon emissions were reduced by 24%. Emissions can be reduced even more with lower carbon practices upstream during production. 

The Carbon Trust is a mission led organisation, for a decarbonised future. We are committed to helping organisations achieve decarbonisation in all sectors, including the plastic packaging industry. We do not encourage the use of plastic where it can be avoided, but currently there are areas where alternative materials are unrealistic, for both practical and pricing reasons. If plastic is going to exist, it should be as circular as possible. 

Our Plastic Packaging Framework endorses packaging where significant sustainable choices have been made throughout its design and production, facilitating the shift towards a circular economy. It aims to drive resource efficiency by recognising packaging that goes beyond compliance and ultimately produces lower carbon emissions. 

The framework assesses packaging that is >50% plastic by weight and assesses its circularity against three key modules – recycled content, recyclability, and resource efficiency.  It takes a holistic view of the current plastic industry and reviews performance across three main perspectives, with an optional fourth, where organisations can influence circularity:

  • Taking action to increase recycled content in plastic packaging
  • Working to improve the recyclability of plastic packaging 
  • Implementing resource efficiency within the design and production of plastic packaging 
  • Understanding plastic leakage and planning to avoid and mitigate its impact (optional).

So far, we have identified where recycled content, combined with low carbon manufacturing, can offer CO2 reductions for clients using the framework scenario module. Whilst the UK plastic packaging tax will contribute to less reliance on virgin plastics overall, we can go further. We can identify where future carbon emission reductions are possible on a localised product level.

The plastic packaging sector has a long way to go to curb its production and develop infrastructure able to cope with waste. When using plastic, we must all prioritise, as we strive for a circular economy and a Net Zero future.

We are currently recruiting pilot companies for the Plastic Packaging Framework. If you are interested in finding out more about becoming a pathfinder, please contact our team at client.support@carbontrust.com