For several years the UK has been developing an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme where producers of packaging (packaging manufacturers, brands, wholesalers, retailers, importers etc.) will pay for the cost of the recovery of those materials when they become waste. EPR will replace the existing Producer Responsibility scheme, lifting the burden from the public purse and reallocating costs between producers.
The inevitable happened in late July. Extended Producer Responsibility, or at least the mechanism for producers to pay for the cost of recovery, was delayed by a year to 2025. While DEFRA pushed the line that this was an anti-inflationary policy it can’t be ignored that the National Audit Office and others highlighted that the Government didn’t have a workable plan to deliver within the original timescale. There is a level of disingenuousness from DEFRA, presenting the decision as a bold and decisive step with little hint of mea-culpa, albeit fault that’s jointly held by the industry.
So, the UK is left for another year with the same Producer Responsibility framework it’s had for over a quarter of a century. While that got recycling going in the 1990s and delivered significant incremental gains thereafter it’s just not capable of driving forward the recovery of the resources that we as a nation throw away every hour of every day.
The response has fallen into roughly 4 categories. Producers who are brand owners and importers welcomed the delay as they’ll have a further year to work out how to deal with a more complex, expensive system. Other producers are disappointed as they’ll continue to have responsibility for a further year. Recyclers are puzzled, how do we plan future infrastructure? Local Government is angry, with another year of household recycling costs largely falling on the public purse.
These groupings are understandable given everyone’s vested interests. However, one comment I read by a producer representative worried me claiming the delay was a “bold decision”, which it was, but went onto say “…the hard work starts now…”. It begs the question, what have the past 5 years been about and what’ll be different with the extra year we have?
From a plastics recyclers perspective, it’s particularly disappointing. EPR is one of 3 vital legs to drive our industry forward. Consistent collections (a policy which it is now confirmed will also be delayed) to deliver high quality volume of raw material for recovery; EPR to encourage the simplification and recyclability of packaging or make those that chose not to do so pay more; and finally, the Plastics Tax to encourage demand for recycled content. Now with only one leg in place it’s a dangerous time for recycling.
Also delayed is the reform of Packaging Export Recovery Notes which was being wrapped up into Producer Responsibility reform. These notes provide evidence of recycling to producers of packaging materials. The proposed reforms would have substantially increased the verifiability of this evidence, a problem which has plagued producer responsibility for many years.
After the announcement of delay a flurry of further announcements came from DEFRA. EPR is going back out to consultation and the draft regulation by statutory instrument (SI) has been published. This is no bad thing. One of the reasons for delay was the last consultation in 2021 had such a harsh reaction from industry that a rethink was needed. Then came an announcement of an EPR redesign. Is this separate to or in parallel to the consultation? Some clarification is required on this.
We risk repeating the mistakes of the past. One of the issues of the EPR proposal in 2021 was that it was mind bogglingly complex. I responded to that consultation but to be blunt I responded to the bits I understood. Perhaps this is a comment on my own capacity more than anything else, but I have to point out that I also have a day job and limited time. Many who will be deeply impacted by EPR are in the same boat.
The new consultation is on draft regulations of 137 dense pages. The consultation document is inflexible with the large majority of questions it asks being yes/no answers. Our respective trade associations have a vital role to play helping industry understand what the new proposals mean and respond in a meaningful way. I strongly encourage those impacted by EPR to do so both through those associations and individually.
There is potential upside to this story. While the costs of EPR have been delayed the data gathering that will work out what those costs will be has not. It looks like that is on course and credit to DEFRA and producers for that. When the time comes for producers to pay, the resulting extra data should mean that costs of recovery are better understood and properly allocated. This will put a dual reporting burden on producers of course while they post data to both old and new systems, the reward for producers being a significant cost saving.
So, what’s the conclusion? We have a delay made dangerous by loss of momentum and which perpetuates an inadequate system. At best it presents a chance to maximise the potential when we do get going. At worst, DEFRA struggle to deliver, some producers successfully plead for further delay, the rest of industry responds inadequately and the project stalls. The next few months will reveal if DEFRA has the resilience and leadership to overcome this setback.
More insidious is that the upcoming consultation will be in the light of eroded trust with battlelines drawn. For all the desire of producers to have an industry led EPR, Government must set the direction.
One final thought on this. The delay will push the cost of EPR to after the next election. What will a new Secretary of State, possibly with a different set of politics and economic environment, make of the current EPR proposals which have been developed entirely under a Conservative government? The UK’s EPR story has some way to go.
Source: Media Matters / Vanden Recycling