Research Impact: Plastic packaging waste recycling efforts stifled by regulatory and technical ‘lock-in’

Dr Eleni Iacovidou and Professor Andrew Brown received ‘Responsive Mode’ funding through our ESRC IAA in 2018 for their project which explored ‘key metrics for supporting national and local government waste policy improvements.’ You can read more about their original IAA project here. Since then, they have gone on to receive funding via the ‘Plastic and Research Innovation Fund’ and the Economic and Social Research Council and have worked collaboratively with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Plastic packaging waste recycling efforts stifled by regulatory and technological ‘lock-in’

Significant changes to the way that plastic packaging waste is recycled in England are needed in order to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2043 and meet the Government’s ambitions in its Resources and Waste Strategy.

A new study from the University of Leeds and Brunel University London found that the current system of collecting and managing plastic packaging waste disadvantages local authorities and discourages efforts to invest in green infrastructure to exploit technological change.

This leads to an over-dependence on exporting waste to markets with questionable recycling policies and also impairs consumer decision-making about how to dispose of plastic packaging waste. The report – ‘Plastic packaging – How do we get to where we want to be?’ – found that the cost of collecting and managing waste under the current system meant that some local authorities were forced to tie themselves to contracts as long as 25 years to make it economically viable.

The study was funded via the Plastic and Research Innovation Fund and the Economic and Social Research Council, working collaboratively with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the waste management sector and other stakeholders.

It also found that waste companies need to be confident that they can make a good return on investment – which encourages these long contracts – but this makes it difficult for local authorities to implement changes in their infrastructure.

The researchers argue that a reduction in the cost burden on local authorities, through more equitable distribution of value in the system, can incentivise long-term investment but that regulatory and technological ‘locked-ins’ need to be confronted.

The major reforms under the Resources and Waste Strategy, including consistency in waste collection, extended producer responsibility and deposit return schemes, are designed to confront the issues and retain value. DEFRA’s collaboration with this project is a reflection of what DEFRA is doing to move things in the right direction.

The report analysed the UK’s plastic packaging system in England using a new systems approach termed ‘Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery’ (CVORR).

Report co-author, Andrew Brown, Professor of Economics at the University of Leeds, said: “The report shows the importance of a deep collaboration between economists, engineers and environmental scientists, also working collaboratively with DEFRA, the waste management sector and other stakeholders.”

Professor Brown stressed that “In order to take advantage of huge long-term opportunities for value preservation and creation through plastic packaging recycling, change is required in the whole system, guided by the new CVORR framework.”

“Innovation in the waste and recycling industry is really swift, but our local authorities cannot take advantage under the current system,” said Dr Eleni Iacovidou, a Lecturer in Environmental Management at Brunel, who led the study.

“Confronting and breaking the lock-ins to current regulations and infrastructures is key to achieving radical transformations in the plastic packaging system and in resource recovery systems more generally.”

Dr Iacovidou continued: “The complexity of the plastic packaging system means that there is no one perfect solution to the many problems that plague the plastic packaging system, and that a number of targeted, informed ways of addressing these issues is needed. The CVORR framework helps us to understand these problems and find solutions in a much clearer, joined-up way.”

The researchers point to the UK’s exit from the European Union as a significant challenge to meeting the 2050 goal, but also an opportunity to implement the required changes as the government decouples itself from European regulation. This calls for orchestrating processes and structures in the entire value chain.

The report proposed new metrics for the government to use when monitoring and assessing their success against the 2050 target. The metrics developed correspond to four domains of value – environmental, economic, social and technical – enable a systemic assessment of the plastic packaging system, which is so much needed to bringing about change and monitoring that change.

The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), was authored by Eleni Iacovidou, Norman Ebner, Bianca Orsi and Andrew Brown.