Margaret Bates, newly appointed OPRL Executive Director, on Packaging and Innovation
- You’ve just made the leap from academia to leading OPRL Ltd – what attracted you to this role?
I’ve been a huge fan of OPRL for several years, as anyone who has heard me speak at a conference will know. I love the evidence based approach, in a world of confusion and green washing the OPRL label stands out. It’s clear and easy to understand and consumers trust it.
So I’d felt that it was time to move on from academia, to move away from saying to doing and how could I resist this opportunity? It’s a great time to join – I love the binary labels and think they’ll add to consumer understanding. There’s a great team at OPRL, though I think some people might be surprised at how we pack such a punch with such a small team. To be honest, I also like the idea that when someone asks me what I do I can point to the label and say “this”.
- With the Environment Bill just re-starting its journey through Parliament, what are the big opportunities and challenges OPRL and its members face?
I think OPRL has a huge role to play in delivering the ambitions of the Environment Bill, and help the UK move to a more a circular economy. The Environment Bill aims to help consumers to make purchasing decisions that support the market for more sustainable products. Part of the way it will do this is by introducing clear product labelling, which will enable consumers to identify products that are more durable, reparable and recyclable and will inform them on how to dispose of used products.
OPRL is the label that most UK consumers use to make their decisions about what can be recycled and we’d like to see it even more widespread.
We already have a label that businesses like, as evidenced by our ever-increasing membership, and that consumers trust so it makes sense, including in economic terms, to make OPRL a mandatory label. But our members don’t just have access to the labels they can also use the PREP tool which will enable packaging designers to ensure they meet eco-design standards around recyclability. When PREP assesses a packaging design will be recyclable at the kerbside in the UK it gives brands and their customers confidence in the pack choice and avoids accusations of greenwashing.
- How will OPRL be helping its members prepare for Extended Producer Responsibility reforms?
There are a host of things that are happening at OPRL – we never sit still! The new labels will make it easier to demonstrate recyclability, if you can put the “Recycle” label on then you know it can, and should, be recycled using the collection and reprocessing infrastructure in the UK. The PREP tool helps our members ensure that they’re designing for recyclability and using the latest information and Rules – for example reflecting the reduction in acceptable plastic coating contamination for paper/board packaging to 15% and then 10% in 2023.
It’s important to remember that OPRL is currently a voluntary scheme. Our members want to do the right thing and make it easier for their customers to do the right thing. We need to ensure that EPR reforms make that assurance all encompassing. If you see the OPRL label on packaging you know the supplier is heading in the right direction with clear and consistent labelling helping to inform and engage the public.
- Everyone’s looking for that great idea which will solve the sustainable packaging challenge and many options will be on display at Packaging Innovations. What would be your top tips for packaging buyers looking to get a lead on new solutions?
My top tip would be to work with your supply chain at end-of-life and talk to the people who will be collecting, treating and recycling your packaging before making that procurement choice. Make sure if you invest in a new format that the public will understand how to dispose of it. PREP and OPRL labelling are great tools to ensure and demonstrate a robust approach to recycling.
- OPRL has just changed its labels and Labelling Rules? What are the big differences we’re going to see?
Binary labels are the most noticeable changes, from 1st February 2020 any new or amended product packaging our members put on the market will have the new labels. We undertook a large amount of consumer research to determine what people related to and understood. The new labels are based on the household collection rates, reprocessing capacity and available markets and are in line with ISO14021. We hope that the more householders get used to the simple yes/ no message the more they will use it to influence their purchasing behaviour, rather than just looking at recyclability at end of life.
- What else would you like to see in improving citizen engagement in recycling and the popular debate on plastics?
I’d like a proper debate about packaging, about its importance, the role it takes and then the best materials to use in certain circumstances – and accept in some of those circumstances it will be plastic.
I think we need to talk about value chain responsibility and accept that citizens have a role to ensure that systems function and we reduce / eliminate leakage from the system. We need to accept that while some people care passionately about the environment and the climate others do not, and I think we need to move away from just asking people to do the right thing and look more carefully at incentives.
- If you could change one thing in the current packaging and recycling world, what would it be?
I’d get rid of poorly thought out material – and product – substitution and green washing.
We have a track record of unforeseen consequences of substitution – plastic instead of ivory, plastic bags to replace paper and save the trees. These demonstrate the need to avoid knee jerk reactions and carefully think through the implications, on a life cycle basis, of changes. I don’t mean we should sit back and see what happens, this IS a climate emergency, but make sure we have a good understanding of the implications of our actions.
- You’ve worked with recycling systems in countries across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. What lessons have you brought back to the UK from those experiences?
I’ve learnt that we’re really lucky to have such a complete and reliable system for our waste and recycling. We have moved from wastes management for public health protection to focussing on obtaining and maintaining maximum value from our materials – other countries are not that lucky. More than 3 billion people have no access to waste services and have to dump and burn their waste. This is why I find fly tipping and littering in the UK totally unacceptable – we have a choice and they do not!
- What would you tell your 21 year old self about a career in sustainable packaging and materials?
By 21 I was already firmly embedded in the world of waste and recycling, but I could never have imagined that it would lead me to where I am. I’ve met some amazing people and seen some amazing sights. Amazing is not always good – I will never forget the smile of the beautiful young lady picking waste on a smoking dump site in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, knowing that the future for her, and the baby strapped to her back, was bleak.
I’d tell my 21 year old self that you can make a difference and that the resource management sector is full of challenge, but it’s also full of people who care and who want to make a difference, who will help you.
- What are you most looking forward to at Packaging Innovations?
It’s hard to pick on just one thing. I’m looking forward to watching the OPRL team demonstrate their passion and enthusiasm when telling current and potential members what the new Rules mean. The Big Carbon debate will be interesting and I’m looking forward to taking part. But I think the best bit is just seeing how much is happening and how much a sector that most people take for granted is changing and evolving.
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