British consumers think manufacturers are avoiding recycling responsibilities

A bale of plastic for recycling

New research has found that British consumers think manufacturers are avoiding their responsibilities when it comes to disposing products and packaging.  

The research, conducted by BritainThinks and SUEZ, is part of a new study which looked into public attitudes about how recycling and waste disposal should be funded in the United Kingdom in the future. 


Researchers launched four-day long workshops around England asking members of the public a range of questions about waste services, consumption, recycling experiences and producer-responsibility, before testing some of the responses through a national survey of more than 2,000 people.  

This year’s REB Market Intelligence Summit is taking place on 2 October and will look at end destinations for materials. Find out more here

Most workshop participants said that manufacturers should take greater responsibility for funding the treatment of waste arising from their products and packaging. 

However, the national survey found that over half of the population (55%) think manufacturers should be responsible for the costs of recycling or disposal of the materials that they place on the market, with the majority of the population (84%) believing that all manufacturers should be obligated and should cover parts of the cost.  

Similarly, around three quarters of the workshop participants felt that manufacturers should pay a deposit when they place products and packaging on the markets, and only have it returned on the percentage that is recycled in practice.  

The workshop contributors were also sceptical that council cost-savings coming from a transfer of responsibility from councils to manufacturers would be passed on to tax-payers, while producers would be quick to recover their losses by increasing the cost of items.  

They also warned that producer-funded systems may make recycling more complex and could penalise some businesses more than others.  

The national survey showed that 81% consider current recycling systems to be “convenient”, although 23% admitted to discarding items they know could have been recycled.  

BritainThinks found that consumers want recycling and waste disposal to be convenient, efficient and rewarding, with some suggesting that they want incentives from manufacturers for playing their part in any producer-operated schemes, such as points on loyalty cards.  

Packaging manufacturers, among others, are already legally obligated to ensure a certain percentage of the materials they place on the UK market are recycled and must buy evidence from recyclers to show they are meeting these obligations. 

The money paid by the manufacturers is used to help the costs of collection and the sorting of waste produced by consumers, although, it only covers between 10-15% with business and council tax-payers covering the remaining 90% of costs.   

Workshop consumers were “shocked” by this and felt that packaging producers were “shirking” their responsibilities, with the current system failing to deliver change because producers weren’t incentivised to move towards more sustainable packaging.   

During the research, participants were questioned about their own consumption habits, with the majority saying they never or rarely think of the environmental impact of the products they buy.  

This opinion was echoed by the national survey, which found that sustainability and waste disposal were the least important factors for consumers when buying goods.   

Labels for environmental performance and design of a measurement system were also topics at the workshops, with most people favouring “recyclability – how easy it is to recycle a product” over more complex measures like carbon footprint.  

People also liked the idea of a grading system and the use of “traffic light” colours to indicate good, average and bad performers, although many felt that a negative eco-label would damage some brands over time.  

The national survey results found that 57%  would check the labels and that this would influence buying decisions, while 67% feel that they would be more likely to purchase brands that were more sustainable than competitors, and 60% saying they would only switch brands if the sustainable alternative was cheaper.  

SUEZ UK chief executive David Palmer-Jones said: “From the feedback we received, we can see that increasing the price of un-recyclable or poor-performing goods through producer responsibility obligations maybe isn’t enough on its own to change consumer behaviour, and that sustainability isn’t at the forefront of shoppers’ minds.  

“A producer-responsibility regime for the UK must be fair and promote a level playing field for all manufacturers – not just those with the ability to shoulder increased costs. It should also be efficient and minimise the costs passed on to consumers, while rewarding the brands that innovate, adapt and ultimately create less waste through better designed products and packaging.”  

Britain Thinks research director Anastasia Knox, said: “We are delighted to have worked on this research with SUEZ. Consumers across the country engaged enthusiastically with these complex issues and delivered a clear message about the importance of recycling and waste disposal.   

The degree of support for extending producer responsibility beyond the current system was particularly striking. However, it was also clear that to succeed in practice, any new system of producer responsibility will need to be easy to engage with and deliver tangible benefits to consumers.”   

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