The government’s plastic packaging regulations have enormous implications for the builder’s merchant sector. Here, Bob Fleetwood, the man at the forefront of devising National Buying Group’s response, explains more.
On an innocuous industrial estate in Bristol, is an independent builder’s merchant playing a part in the sector’s response to the government's proposals to reduce construction’s dependency on plastic packaging.
Kellaway Building Supplies (Kellaway) is a family-run merchant with 16 sites across the Southwest of England, providing a wide range of products from timber and joinery through to bathrooms, electricals, landscaping, tools and workwear.
Kellaway’s Purchasing Director, Bob Fleetwood, has become a true advocate for reducing plastic, but he’s reluctant to take on the mantle of environmental campaigner.
“My role as a lead on plastic packaging really came about because of Nick Oates and the National Buying Group (NBG),” says Bob. “It was Nick who really saw the danger for independent merchants, but he needed help to quantify the extent of the problem. As a result, we have been able to accurately identify what could happen if the building products supply chain doesn’t sort itself out,” says Bob.
The bare facts are these. Plastic is the most commonly used packaging for construction products in the UK and subject to a tax, the Plastic Packaging Tax, which came in on the 1st April 2022. Under this tax, a charge of £200 is applied per tonne of all plastic packaging used without a minimum of 30% recycled content.
A second financial obligation, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), is set to come into force in 2024. This will see companies producing or using greater than 50 tonnes of packaging and with an annual turnover of £2million required to contribute towards waste management and recycling infrastructure. The big question, of course, is how much is this going to cost? That’s where Kellaway came in – when the merchant agreed to take part in a comprehensive audit at its Worcester facility, in order to build up a picture of what merchants are facing in terms of their tax liability.
Working with an external packaging consultant appointed by NBG, Bob was given a crash course in packaging regulation compliance.
“We scoured the depot from the yard to the shop, noting everything that would incur a tax liability,” says Bob. “We took a two-pronged approach – firstly, we asked why so much packaging is being used and whether we as an industry are just stuck in our ways.”
“Secondly, we asked if there are lessons that can be learnt from how some suppliers use less plastic and can these ideas be rolled out with those suppliers who use more.”
In the warehouse, the audit found an abundance of plastic used for stability while transporting. A good example was roofing felt, delivered to merchants in shrink wrap and then stretch-wrapped to the pallet for stability. Similarly, each pack of damp proof membrane was individually shrink-wrapped.
In the shop, the audit found everything from simple spades and tools were individually wrapped, through to wooden staircase parts that could potentially have their plastic packaging removed entirely, as well as packs of nails in heavy, single-use plastic bags.
However, it was in the yard that the biggest challenges were identified. For example, stone paving was consolidated in wooden stillages with plastic wrapping used solely for branding purposes. Also, dumpy bags for aggregate proved to be a much bigger issue than anyone had anticipated. “We found that both single-use and multi-use dumpy bags made of 100% virgin woven polypropylene accounted for approximately 27% of our liability,” says Bob.
Overall, the audit calculated that Kellaway’s total packaging waste projection under the fully implemented new regulations was 119 tonnes per annum, amounting to a tax liability of more than £75,000. “This is a 1,400% increase on our previous liability of approximately £5,000,” says Bob.
Even more significant is the anticipated impact on suppliers of plastic packaging. These organisations could be set for somewhere between a 10 and 30-fold increase in current prices due to the share of liability being placed on the company with the greatest influence on the packaging. For suppliers to Kellaway, the audit calculated a potential jump from £3,000 in 2022 to a staggering £196,000 come 2024.
Nevertheless, while plastic packaging poses significant challenges, it also presents major opportunities. “We also identified where changes could be made that could deliver a significant reduction in the liability,” explains Bob. “For example, is there an option to use reusable stillages or nylon strapping during transportation, such as with the damp proof membrane? And could greater prevalence of recycled plastic for packaging ease some of the potential burden?
“There is obviously little benefit in wrapping a spade in plastic before sale or where plastic is used purely for branding purposes. Can high-volume products such as nails use cardboard packaging, or could a return-and-reuse scheme solve the dumpy bags issue?”
Bob is of course mindful that competing concerns must be balanced. For example, stretch wrap is used widely for stability during transportation, and any reduction in its use could be counterproductive without a suitable alternative. He said: “The building industry has been at the forefront of health and safety over the last decade, and we can’t compromise safety for sustainability. Going forward, storage will become more difficult and there will be health and safety issues for other products, but we must work together as an industry to find solutions.”
In his role at packaging team leader at NBG, Bob’s next stop is with suppliers. NBG has formed a Sustainability and Cost Reduction Forum, attended by both Partners and Suppliers, which aims to offer accessible guidance to both parties on how they can mitigate forthcoming financial penalties.
“We are in the process of setting up meetings to discuss solutions further,” says Bob. “We know we can never take all plastic packaging away, but there is a real opportunity for suppliers who are willing to think outside the box and work with independent merchants to come up with solutions.”
However, Bob admits that the government’s final intentions remain uncertain. “The Government is still unclear on a lot of issues about how this will affect the merchant sector, not least when the EPR will be implemented,” he concludes. “Yet we cannot wait for them. If we leave things any longer it will be too late – for the environment, for NBG Partners and all independent merchants.”
Merchants and manufacturers wanting more information about the NBG’s approach to plastic packaging should contract Jasmine King at firstname.lastname@example.org