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    Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I

    Government needs to fast-track its plastic strategy to hit net zero

    Government needs to fast-track its plastic strategy to hit net zero
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    As a society we have historically used plastic poorly. But there is a sustainable future for plastic, one where no new material is made and where all existing plastic is recycled and re-used endlessly — a truly circular economy.

    Moving to a circular economy is much more than recycling; it’s also central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — 79 per cent fewer GHG emissions are generated when a plastic bottle is made using recycled material[1]. That’s why ensuring we only use recycled plastic to make all our bottles by 2030 or sooner is a key part of hitting SBF GB&I’s net zero target across our entire supply chain by 2050, and in the shorter term achieving our science-based target of reducing our emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.

    Ribena, a brand known and loved for its association with the British countryside, was the first in the UK soft drinks industry to make its bottles from 100 per cent recycled material in 2007, and we recently updated the bottle design to give it the best chance of being turned back into another bottle, regardless of the technology at the sorting or recycling centre. We plan to make similar changes to our other major brands, Lucozade Sport and Lucozade Energy, over the next year but we’re currently facing a chronic shortage of food grade recycled plastic both in the UK and across Europe.

    This shortage of certified food grade recycled plastic is a result of stalling recycling rates and industry wide supply chain issues created by Covid. The Plastic Packaging Tax has also increased demand in the UK, despite not coming into force until next year. Of course, this demand demonstrates businesses are doubling down on sustainability which can only be a good thing, but as the tax is currently structured it will do nothing to increase the necessary investment in recycling and collection infrastructure that we need in order to increase supply.

    It won’t be until deposit return schemes, extended producer responsibility reform and consistent household collections start to come into effect from the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025, that we will begin to see the necessary improvements we need in the recycling and collection infrastructures to increase domestic supply.

    There is a concerning supply gap from now until 2025 that could limit manufacturers’ ambitions and delay their transition to 100 per cent recycled plastic, impacting progress to net zero. We think this gap could be reduced by using the initial revenues generated from the plastic packaging tax to invest in recycling and collection infrastructure until the wider system reforms come in place. This could include:

    • extending UKRI’s ‘Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge’ to provide further support to address known recycling problems and develop new technologies
    • temporarily increasing the level of the annual investment allowance further, and extending to 31 March 2025 for businesses in the recycling sector, super-charging the government’s current incentives for plant and machinery investment
    • creating a new transformation fund to help local authorities fast-track the collection and recycling of plastic film in advance of the government’s households target of 2026/7

    The government could also minimise the gap by embracing the best practice we see in other parts of the UK. For example, it could bring forward consistent household collections as Wales has had since 2011. Wales’ Collection Blueprint has been a huge part of the country’s success in boosting recycling rates, now the third best household waste recycling rate in the world[2].

    A leaf could also be taken out of Republic of Ireland’s book, following its recent announcement to accept soft plastics in household recycling[3]. All plastic films and flexibles should not only be in scope of consistent collections from the outset, but their collection should be brought forward. Indeed, in the UK government’s recent consultation on extended producer responsibility, it was acknowledged ‘net present societal value arising from the inclusion of plastic film is estimated as £218 million over the period 2023-32, compared to £157 million without its inclusion’[4]. It would also better align to the UK Plastics Pact ambition of 100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

    Perhaps the fastest, cost neutral and most effective intervention government could make is to enable food and drink manufacturers to have right of first refusal for food contact grade recycled material in the UK. This will ensure this higher-grade material is used for what it’s designed for, ensuring the safety and longevity of British food and drink, rather than being used for non-food packaging such as textiles or children’s toys, or being permanently locked into non-recyclable products like traffic cones and benches.

    As a business, we’re doing all we can to reduce, reuse and recycle the plastic we use. We’re investing in new innovation, such as Carbios’s enzymatic recycling technology, which will mean that plastic can be recycled endlessly[5]. But government needs to be stepping up and be doing more to create the right conditions to help businesses deliver on their plastic commitments and ambitions, so that we can not only achieve them, but go further. Net zero depends on it.

    [1] https://blog.alpla.com/en/press-release/newsroom/study-confirms-excellent-carbon-footprint-recycled-pet/08-17

    [2] https://gov.wales/how-wales-became-world-leader-recycling

    [3] https://www.mywaste.ie/news/soft-plastic-recycling/

    [4] https://consult.defra.gov.uk/extended-producer-responsibility/extended-producer-responsibility-for-packaging/supporting_documents/23.03.21%20EPR%20Consultation.pdf

    [5] https://www.suntorybeverageandfood-europe.com/dyn/_assets/_pdfs/en-GB/sbfe/sbfe_carbios_press_release_letterhead_with_image_final.pdf

    By Michelle Norman, Director of Sustainability, Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I