Over the coming years, the packaging industry will experience seismic change. Consultations are expected in early 2021 regarding proposals for the introduction of a highly-functioning Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), much-needed reforms to the Producer Responsibility system, the national harmonisation of household waste collections across England, as well as the recently completed consultation on the Plastics Packaging Tax.

With the ambition of improving recycling rates, supporting the UK’s transition towards a more circular economy and eliminating the scourge of litter, these reforms have the potential to revolutionise waste management. However, data quality is essential to their successful development and smooth implementation – not only as an accurate reference point to inform strategy and legislation, but also to demonstrate positive resulting impact and change.

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Unfortunately, the UK’s recycling data is disaggregated, decentralised and widely deemed unsuitable for purpose. Unless we can effectively harness the reforms as an opportunity for change, we run the risk of creating further unnecessary complexity and failing to effectively leverage the biggest opportunity of a generation.

Why data is key to unlocking the future

Over the past decade, the UK’s perception of packaging recycling has changed significantly. Now, more than ever, best practice waste management is being positioned as a primary driver of our transition towards a more circular economy. With strict targets set out by EU law, combined with increasing proactivity from both households and businesses alike, how we handle our packaging waste is now squarely in the spotlight.

Four consultations happening simultaneously is proof enough that real change is coming. The waste management landscape of the future will be hugely different to what it is today. Circularity, sustainability and treating waste as a resource will soon become commonplace, rather than just being seen as part of the solution.

However, while each of these proposals will fundamentally improve how waste is valued in the UK, they also represent a step-change in complexity and ambition, meaning significant funding is imperative to turn visionary thinking into tangible reality. With money in mind, there will undoubtedly be more pressure than ever to closely track performance and prove value – a job that relies almost entirely on the accuracy of recycling data.

This is where the situation becomes a little more complicated. While progress has been made, a key failing of the UK’s recycling data is its historical reputation for being disaggregated, decentralised and non-standardised.

Even now, it’s hard to assess how well the UK is doing against targets, thanks to the vast number of databases used and various ways in which criteria are analysed. For example, national recycling performance is assessed against whether enough packaging recovery notes (PRNs) have been issued to cover the packaging placed on the market (via the National Packaging Waste Database). Conversely, local authority collections are assessed by analysing tonnes of recyclate as a percentage of total waste (via tools such as WasteDataFlow).

What’s more, these two databases, scrutinised as an example, are populated by both local authorities and independent packaging companies simultaneously. Data entry is open to interpretation, with different rules applying to different geographies and no enforceable penalties incurred for missing data or late entry.

While concerning, this scenario is commonplace across almost every packaging recycling data avenue and, in truth, suggests a lack of strong governance. With the critical importance of accurate recycling data, reliance on such disparate data is hugely concerning.

Devising a better platform for the future

While it’s safe to suggest that existing recycling data is unsuitable for purpose, we have a significant and immediate opportunity to change things for the better. The upcoming reforms provide an unprecedented opening to simplify, standardise and collaborate.

Imperative to this new approach is creating a failsafe, uniform way of reporting both the quantities and end of life destinations of different waste streams collected from UK households. This should include a breakdown of all key components that can be analysed separately, such as aluminium, to allow accurate and comparable analysis.

In an ideal scenario, this standardisation of data should be legislated and enforced accordingly, rather than being left to the discretion of those inputting the data, as well as being made accessible to all simply and effectively.

By realising this change, we could achieve a number of things. Firstly, we would be able to accurately – and honestly – report on UK recycling rates, stream by stream. Secondly, we would be able to analyse and report successes and progress achieved. Finally, we will have an honest, reliable platform on which to base model future waste management decisions upon.

Conversely, if we fail to embrace change, we will be wedded to relying on frankly unsuitable data to inform the future of our national waste management strategy. What’s more, we will have missed our one glaring opportunity to fix a poorly functioning part of the UK’s waste management equation.

Granted, revolution will not prove a quick, easy or cheap fix, but the results will deliver a multitude of immediate – and long-lasting – benefits.

By Tom Giddings