Technological watch

The Plastic Packaging Tax – a signpost to the circular economy

Louise Aplin

Chartered Marketer Louise Aplin considers how the recently implemented Plastic Packaging Tax  impacts packaging manufacturers and shares the perspectives of two of her industry specialist clients on reformulating packaging to include recycled content.

Back in late 2018, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced the introduction of the UK Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT).  At that stage 2022 seemed quite a way off.  Fast forward three years and despite a global pandemic and subsequent trade and supply chain uncertainties, many packaging manufacturers have adapted their products to incorporate at least 30% recycled content to avoid incurring the tax.

Reformulating packaging products to incorporate recycled content has been a new experience for many and for some it was a steep learning curve. Prior to the PPT, using recycled content was an ambition for many businesses working towards more sustainable manufacturing but this was often considered technically challenging.  This challenge has become more difficult to achieve as it has now been clarified by HMRC that companies are not able to include industrial waste. Recently updated HMRC guidance states that pre-consumer plastic ‘does not include scrap or regrind which can be reused in the process from which it was generated after only minimal reprocessing’.  The Guidance goes on to say ‘where waste material is recovered and requires reprocessing involving melting and extrusion into pellets at a reprocessing facility before it can be reused, it can be treated by manufacturers as recycled plastic for any process.’

As of April 2022 however, including 30% recycled content is key to remaining competitive through avoiding the £200 per tonne tax.

Two organisations operating within the sphere of manufacturing sustainable plastic packaging are Chase Plastics and Greenacre Consulting.

“Although initially perceived as just another tax, the PPT has accelerated many companies’ desire to embrace the Circular Economy.” comments David Harris, Chief Executive at Chase Plastics, a UK manufacturer of post use recycled polythene pellets. “Prior to the tax, those considering the use of recycled polythene pellets would often start the conversation with  ‘What have you got'’ or ‘What’s your price'’. Now, the conversation has moved towards ‘I want to achieve X – what is the best way to achieve it'” He continues: “Customers are now more aware that choosing the wrong recycled content can have a hidden cost in terms of manufacturing efficiency and productivity. They understand that choosing an unsuitable raw material can cost a lot more to process and negatively affect the quality and performance of their products. They are also more aware of the importance to the Circular Economy of buying locally from a recycler with EUCertPlast accreditation.”  

EUCertPlast accreditation recognises the highest standards of material traceability, quality and process control in plastics recycling. The scheme focuses on traceability of plastic materials (both throughout the entire recycling process and the supply chain) and on the quality of recycled content in the end-product.

Being aware of the types of recycled content available and understanding how they impact both product and processes are aspects of sustainable manufacturing that were not always top of mind prior to the PPT. Efforts to manufacture packaging more sustainably generally focused on minimising production waste, reducing energy consumption or making the product go further through initiatives such as downgauging (weight reduction) – and rightly so. However, the advent of the PPT means that the sustainable manufacture of plastic packaging has stepped up a gear through the modification of the product itself to incorporate at least 30% recycled content. 

As technical adviser on the design of sustainable plastic packaging, Greenacre Consulting helps companies solve complex packaging problems and reduce the environmental impact of plastics. “Understanding plastic recyclates is critical to a successful outcome” remarks Gary Buchalter, Managing Director at Greenacre Consulting.  “In general, high quality recyclates have fewer impurities and purer recyclates both run better throughout the manufacturing process and perform better within the finished product.  Manufacturers need to be aware of the consequences of poor quality recyclates and their impact on finished product integrity. As with virgin materials, parameters such as material composition, tensile strength, density and melt flow rate all have to be considered during product reformulation. A further challenge is the significant potential for product variability both within a batch and from batch to batch. Equally important is examining the interactions of machine set-up and processing with the chosen recyclate.” He continues: “While it is not just a straightforward material swap, once you have successfully reformulated your packaging product, it is rewarding to see the valuable resource that is recycled plastic being reused purposefully rather than going to waste.”

The PPT was designed as a financial incentive for manufacturers to use recycled content and while the  additional taxes are unwelcome, the packaging industry should embrace the challenges it presents in order to remain successful and ensure society yields the benefits of more recycling and less waste.

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Publication date: 27/05/2022

European Plastic Product Manufacturer

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31