Green Technology

Stakeholders take stock as anticipated EPR delay means more time available to line things up

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 Wednesday (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 it “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.

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.

The UK’s is currently 8th in Europe, in one league table for recycling rates, according to Eurostat. And with a recycling rate of 44.6%, as card and paper recycling expert DS Smith pointed out, 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.