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Chair comments on NAO Packaging Recycling Obligations report

23 July 2018

Fraudulent exports of unrecyclable, contaminated waste could be bolstering UK's recycling rates under Government's poorly monitored packaging recycling scheme, an NAO report finds.

Following a request from the Environmental Audit Committee, the National Audit Office has today published its report into the Government's Packaging Recycling Obligations.

Chairs comments

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee said:

“The PRN system should have made packaging simpler and easier to recycle, delivered high quality UK recycling, and protected our streets, countryside, rivers and seas from plastic litter. But today's NAO report shows the PRN system has become a tick-box exercise. Waste is exported with no guarantee that it will be recycled, producers are not made to pay to recycle their packaging, and the system is open to fraud and error.

“The Government must fix this broken system in its upcoming resources and waste strategy. The PRN system should make producers pay to recycle their packaging, encourage simpler packaging, support the UK recycling industry, and be open and transparent so people can be confident what goes in the recycling bin gets recycled.”

Companies handling any form of packaging – from plastic bottles to cardboard boxes – must ensure that a certain proportion is recycled under the UK's packaging recycling obligations. They meet these obligations by buying recovery notes from recycling companies in the UK, or from companies that export waste for recycling abroad.

The Environmental Audit Committee asked the National Audit Office to review the system following concerns that it is opaque, and could be subject to fraud and non-compliance.

The NAO report found:

  • Due to a lack of follow-ups by the Environment Agency, at least 4.5% of obligated companies may not register under the scheme;
  • Businesses only pay £73 million towards the cost of recycling their packaging, but local authorities spend £700 million according to 2017 figures and estimates;
  • There is a financial incentive for companies to fraudulently claim they have recycled packaging, particularly for plastic;
  • The Environment Agency has low visibility and control over waste that is sold for recycling abroad and there is a risk that some of it is not recycled and is sent to landfill or littered;
  • The Government has no evidence that the scheme has encouraged companies to minimise packaging or make it easy to recycle; and
  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not know what value the scheme has added in its 20 years of operation.

Further information

Image: NAO