Packaging Innovations 2022: Data-driven labeling vital to plastic tax’s circularity aims, says OPRL director
19 May 2022 --- UK businesses must prepare now for incoming packaging reforms and make evidence-based decisions to support the emerging circular economy, argues Jane Bevis, executive chair and director at OPRL (The On-Pack Recycling Label).
Ahead of Packaging Innovations 2022 next week in Birmingham, UK, we sit down with Bevis to discuss how OPRL’s world-leading labeling system can support the ambitions of the recently-introduced UK Plastic Packaging Tax with data-driven insights. We also discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer recycling behavior and spotlight some of OPRL’s latest achievements.
The UK Plastic Packaging Tax came into force in April. In what ways can your labeling system help support its ambitions?
Bevis: Well, of course, we have held the same ambitions for over 13 years now, so it feels more like how will the Tax support ours! While we’re best known for our “Recycling” labels, actually our Company Purpose is to collaborate across the packaging value cycle to drive circularity and a transformation in resource efficiency in packaging. And that’s what the tax is also trying to achieve, rewarding the use of recyclate by “penalizing” packaging containing less than 30% recycled material.
However, the global fluctuations in oil prices have a far greater impact than the tax itself at current levels, and responsible companies are also very concerned about their brand value and consumer perceptions. Our “Refill” labels support reuse systems by engaging consumers in using or returning packaging for reuse, moving away from the single-use model. And our “Recycling” labels, which three times more consumers understand than any other symbol associated with recycling, engage consumers in recycling correctly – putting the packaging in the correct bin – which supports greater quantities and improved quality of recycled materials for incorporation into new packaging.
What are the latest developments at OPRL?
Bevis: Our membership continues to grow at pace as companies look ahead to the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and mandatory recycling labeling – we’re almost exactly 50% bigger than when we exhibited at Packaging Innovations in February 2019, just before Lockdown One.
With our “Refill” and “Recycling” labels backed up by our online labeling tool and PREP recyclability assessments, plus our Certified As Recyclable scheme for plastic packaging, we give members the insight and resources they need to minimize their EPR liabilities through adopting best practice and the most comprehensive assessments of what is likely to be considered recyclable under the statutory regime. We’re working closely with the materials recycling associations – WRAP and Defra – to ensure the best possible evidence underpins the new regime.
Excitingly, we’re also expanding our offer to include Hospitality and B2B “household-like” packaging and working with stakeholders to ensure they have the tools and labels that work in those contexts, including for packaging types not normally used in standard groceries or FMCG ranges.
Also, our UKRI Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging project looking at how Open Source data could improve the understanding, procurement and reporting of packaging and its recyclability is now entering its final stages. It will be fascinating to see how we can facilitate a step-change in the accuracy of data and use that to drive circularity across the packaging value cycle.
In what ways has COVID-19 impacted consumer recycling behavior?
Bevis: During the COVID lockdowns, we all reassessed our relationship with the environment and the resources we use. Our consumer insight research showed that 60% of us were increasing recycling at home, with other waste-related actions such as reuse of bags, avoiding single-use plastic packaging and taking litter home for disposal all scoring highly, alongside reducing food waste and energy usage. Sadly, that enthusiasm seems to be waning as we return to our busy pre-covid lifestyles, with WRAP’s research showing that food waste bounced back up last year.
However, there are clear lessons here for industry and government that consumers want to do the right thing – we just need to make it as easy and convenient for them as possible – and that means providing recycling facilities wherever they are when they finish consuming the product contained in the packaging. It will be important to incorporate this need into the design of deposit return systems (i.e., it’s not where you bought it, it’s where you consume it that matters when fitting reverse vending machines) and how EPR funds are used, with on-the-go recycling being a priority for action.
In September, OPRL urged the government to ensure the benefits of its labeling were not undermined by a label design “free-for-all.” Has the government acted on your advice and legislated for consistent recycling labeling?
Bevis: We’re delighted that the government has responded by making it clear that there will be a single overall design concept for the mandatory recycling label, incorporating the “Recycle Now Swoosh” contained in the existing OPRL label and standard wording on “Recycling” and “Do Not Recycle.” Our research shows consumers respond better to “Don’t Recycle,” and the size of font and layout matter, so the devil will be in the detail when the government brings out its secondary legislation and guidance later this year. We’re keen to share our expertise and learnings over the last 13 years of operating our voluntary scheme.
The UN Environment Programme and Consumers International rate our labels as global best practice, and we hope the UK mandatory labeling regime will reflect our research, which shows even small variations in design can have a significant impact on consumer engagement.
What is OPRL’s contribution to Packaging Innovations 2022, and what are your key messages for attendees?
Bevis: We’ll be having a busy show, with the full team out on our stand (L104) over the two days. We’re also sponsoring the Ecopack Challenge, searching for innovations in sustainability in packaging – this year’s lineup is stronger than ever, giving the judges a tough challenge in identifying the best entries to come forward for the final round of judging on stage at the show. I will be one of the judges alongside Ocado’s Laura Fernandez, Packhub’s Paul Jenkins and Pret’s Simon Oxley. I will also be co-hosting the £10 billion Debate on the Ecopack Stage with the Foodservice Packaging Association’s Martin Kersh over the two days. And Margaret Bates, our managing director, will be speaking in the Future Packaging Materials session.
Our key messages will be the need to start now to prepare for the packaging reforms coming in over the next 3-5 years, and to do so based on good evidence on what is actually sustainable, including the capacity for our infrastructure to recycle, compost or biodegrade the packaging in question. There are lots of claims being made that are just plain wrong or exaggerated, so Caveat Emptor (“Let the buyer beware”) really applies when making procurement decisions. Consumers will lose all faith in claims which prove to be untrue or unrealizable, and that will not only damage the emerging circular economy, it will damage the brands which make them.
By Joshua Poole
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