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A wound in the system: a closer look at Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs)

By March 19, 2020January 6th, 2021One Comment

A Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) provides evidence that businesses have carried out recycling of waste packaging material. These are issued by accredited exporters or reprocessors who are licensed by environmental agencies such as the National Waste Packaging Database. The EU Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste sets the main targets for the UK’s PRN system to fill.

The current reality is that the programme financially favours exporting our plastic waste. This has led to enormous amounts of unusable UK waste dumped in developing countries falsely labelled as ‘recycled’, boosting UK recycling statistics. 

How does the PRN system recycle mixed waste?

Mixed plastic waste is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. The Sky News Documentary; Dirty Business, (2018) revealed how unsorted UK household recycling is shipped to Eastern Europe and Asia to sit untouched in landfills or worse. These large tonnages of mixed waste are not recyclable due to improper sorting before export. Lord Deben, the creator of the PRN system, stated that “I don’t think we have sufficient control over the quality of what is in there [Waste]. In other words, you can have mixed up in that material, things that are not going to be recycled.”  (Sky News, 2018) . The PRN system does not check the quality and details of which materials are exported. Thus, a lack of regulations at the forefront of our recycling system has resulted in a continuous flow of mixed plastic shipped to poorer countries which is impossible to recycle.  

Exports of packaging waste misrepresent UK data regarding the reprocessing and recycling of packaging materials.  Exports fulfil two thirds of the UK’s packaging recycling targets every year. The Government even provides a subsidy to incentivise reprocessors to export packaging materials instead of dealing with it. 

How The PRN system works

In the UK, a company uses labour, time and machinery to sort one tonne of plastic scrap removing contaminants such as liquids, glues and non-recyclables. It commonly leads to half a tonne of usable plastic remaining for recycling. This earns a 50% subsidy for the 1 tonne taken in for reprocessing. (Sky News, 2018).

If the same company simply loads the unsorted plastic waste into a shipping container, the export of waste material is considered 100% fully recycled. The company is then paid a full 100% subsidy for the 1 tonne taken in for processing.

Businesses have excessively abused this subsidy. Companies currently receive £350 per tonne of mixed plastic waste exported. A standard 20-tonne shipping container of mixed plastic waste would pay a company £7000 per shipment on an ongoing basis to dump plastic waste overseas. The documentary, Dirty Business, highlights that “Capacity does not meet the demand, it is easier to put it in a container and export it rather than spend significant amounts of money putting in a processing plant. It’s generally out of sight and out of mind.” (Sky News, 2018).

 In 2018, 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was exported to countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, and Poland, which accounts for two-thirds of the plastic waste generated by the UK. During 2018, 305,550 tonnes of plastic packaging were recycled or reprocessed in the UK. (BBC, 2019) This shows the clear trend to exporting our waste out of sight and out of mind. 

The future of the PRN system 

 By 2023, The Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme (EPR) sets out to reform the flaws of the PRN system to create “A level-playing field” between accredited reprocessors and exporters of packaging waste. (HM Government, 2018) However, will the full subsidy to export waste still be available to exporters? 

2020 is the start of a new decade and we can do better. If we wait three years for what may or may not be a stop to this programme, we will subsidise over 1,000,000 tonnes of our plastic waste being dumped on poorer nations where it is more likely to reach our oceans and environment. 

This must stop now. 

Join us and write to your local councils to put a stop to the export of unusable mixed plastic waste.