EPR for packaging delay prompts soul-searching as UK confronts stagnant recycling rates

The move towards easier-to-recycle packaging formats seems well underway, but the issue of funding for waste and recycling is still up in the air, without the investment the EPR policy was intended to provide.

Just as anticipated, the government has decided to delay the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging (EPR) by a year. The move was welcomed (or accepted) by many stakeholders as “unfortunate but necessary”, as environmental data specialist ecoveritas put it, due to a lack of clarity on the costs for businesses, and the backdrop of economic uncertainty.

Defra said on Monday (25 July) that the charges, which were due to begin in October 2024, will now be pushed back to October 2025, and after the general election. Charges under the existing PRN regulations will carry on into 2024.

The announcement also delays the introduction of consistent recycling collections for households until “after the implementation of the EPR scheme”.

“It has been a tumultuous few weeks for the landmark policy, with incessant lobbying from producer associations,” as ecoveritas explained in a statement, with apparent relief that this latest announcement “does provide some much-needed clarity”. The group’s Head of Sustainability & Consulting, Kathy Illingworth added that “it has long been apparent that there were too many missing puzzle pieces and far too many detractors before its launch.

A statement from the group said she was hopeful that “the damage done to any remaining ambition isn’t terminal”.

Still, the move does mean that “the public will continue to bear the cost of packaging recycling and disposal, with investment in recycling infrastructure likely harder due to a loss of confidence in the legislative framework.”

The CIWM believed the delay “will have a significant impact,” resulting in “less investment in recycling infrastructure due to a loss of confidence in the legislative framework, and a significant slowing of the UK’s green economy.”

The Recycling Association’s chief executive Paul Sanderson said it was “unbelievable”.

“We’ve been waiting too long for EPR and Consistency of Collections to be introduced, and we need to get on with it.

“We’ve had too many years of drift already since these policies were first announced in 2018, and now it seems we won’t get any further until at least 2025.”

City to Sea’s Harriet Bosnell also seemed incredulous that the government justified the delay to “provide industry, local authorities and waste management companies with more time to prepare”.

“Of course, the more likely reason is that we are leading up to an election where already the environment is being used as a political football.”

Valpak’s CEO Steve Gough struck a more conciliatory note. “In the current economic climate, stakeholders face tough choices.”

“With consumers under significant pressure from the cost-of-living crisis, both government and business are struggling to balance budgets against a commitment to progress with environmental improvements.

The good news?
One upside, as the government’s statement explained, is that “producers have already started to use less packaging and adopt easier to recycle packaging formats, and we expect this process to continue – ensuring that costs are not then passed onto households later on.”

Kathy Illingworth of ecoveritas was also eager to count the gains. “Many positive steps have already been taken.”

“EPR has been five years in the making, and the level of innovation and the pace of change from packaging manufacturers is impressive.”

Other good news, in ecoveritas’ appraisal, was that the data reporting legislation has become law, and the group said companies should now be collecting the data outlined in The Packaging Waste (Data Reporting) (England) Regulations 2023, which came into effect on 28 February 2023.

So, “at least the government can more accurately assess the amount of packaging placed onto the market in 2023 and 2024 before introducing new fees,” said the group’s statement.

On the other hand, “It now throws up all sorts of unanswered questions about how PRN payments in 2024 will work, whether we will have to report under the old packaging waste rules and whether PRN obligations will be based on that,” said Illingworth.

Disputable logic
As a simple upholding of the principle of “polluter pays”, the EPR policy seems widely viewed as beyond reproach – and many commentators puzzled over attributing its delay in part to financial pressures on the consumer, while on the other hand, continuing to ensure that the consumer has to cough up for waste management and recycling of this material.

Cllr Sarah Nelmes, environment spokesperson for the District Councils Network (DCN) said: “The delay in implementing EPR must not be allowed to undermine the commitment, set out in the Environment Act, that those who produce waste should fund councils’ services on an ongoing basis. Councils need clear, realistic timelines to know when this vital policy is going to be implemented.”

“While councils are, of course, seeking to increase recycling rates, there has been far too little attention paid to reducing the overall amount of waste produced – and the incentives provided by EPR are an essential tool to bring this about.

“If there is a silver lining on this latest delay, it does at least provide an opportunity to sort out some of the questions that remain over how EPR funding will be distributed in a way that is fair to all councils, whether in rural or urban settings.

The government’s statement said it “remains committed to delivering on its commitments to eliminating avoidable waste by 2050 and recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035.” EPR “will play a central role in delivering that mission”, building on other measures such as the recently introduced tax on plastic packaging that does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content and the upcoming bans on single-use plastic.

Clawing back to a respectable position
The UK is currently 8th in Europe, in the league table for recycling rates, according to Eurostat, with a recycling rate of 44.6%. The country has already missed the 50% recycling rate target set by DEFRA, which was due to be achieved by 2020, and is on course to miss the 2025 (55%) and 2030 (65%) targets.

Consistent recycling collections for households are clearly key to improving the country’s recycling rates, and to maximising the effectiveness of any eventual EPR policy. As card and paper recycling expert DS Smith pointed out in its response to the government’s latest delay, it is impossible to issue clear guidance to consumers when they are faced with 300 or more different recycling systems across England’s local authorities alone, with no current mandate for how recycling is collected. “The challenge for residents is particularly stark in major cities like London, where neighbouring streets are faced with differing systems, as local councils each apply their own rules.”

The government’s decision to delay was taken jointly with the devolved administrations. But while the UK’s laggard status – in international league tables – looks unlikely to shift decisively anytime soon, especially with this latest news, it’s clear that these devolved governments are intent on doing things differently.

Wales is the top performer with a recycling rate of 56.7% (compared to the UK’s 44.6%), seemingly attributable to measures such as its more consistent approach to recycling collection, fines for councils who miss statutory targets, and greater use of source segregation (with separate collections for paper, metal, glass and plastics).

Scotland announced its Circular Economy Bill in June, which it is believed will give central and local government the power to build on the experience of Wales, and introduce similar measures.

The UK’s recycling performance seems especially poor when it comes to packaging, as DS Smith pointed out, citing league tables that rank the country 28th for paper and card recycling. An exacerbating factor has obviously been the boom in e-commerce, which means more packaging in UK homes.

So hopes for an up-tick in ambition and confidence for the sector continue to depend upon gaining traction with policies such as EPR for product packaging. “Inevitably, there are suspicions the full strategy might never happen,” as ecoveritas noted. “But any failure to achieve a UK-wide reform of waste and recycling services within a reasonable time scale would be a case study of back-sliding, incompetence, and political amnesia.”