New plans to cut waste and boost recycling announced in the UK

Written on 31 Mar 2021

UK governments announce a shift towards a circular economy for UK packaging and drinks containers

On 24 March 2021, two consultations were launched by the UK government and a combination of devolved administrations in a bid to improve the UK's recycling and resource efficiency credentials. Both consultations will run for 10 weeks, and set out changes designed to improve sustainable behaviour from both producers and consumers.

Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging

The first is a joint consultation on the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging in order to ensure that producers pay the full costs of dealing with the packaging waste that they produce.

The aim of the EPR scheme is to reduce waste in the form of unrecyclable or unnecessary packaging, as well as transferring the cost of disposing of such waste to those responsible for producing it. The scheme will incentivise producers to design easily-recyclable packaging and deter the use of unrecyclable packaging (such as polystyrene or black plastic) by imposing higher fees on such materials. Labelling which informs customers and businesses of the recyclability of packaging will be clear and consistent under the proposals. It will also require producers to consider the practicality of recycling – in other words, whether it can be collected for kerb-side recycling – rather than whether it is technically recyclable. The likelihood of the packaging being littered will also be factored into the plans, which will require packaging producers to seek to prevent any such littering.

This is the second consultation on the proposals, and builds on the first consultation which was issued in 2019. Pending the outcome of the consultation, the UK government and the devolved administrations intend for the scheme to be introduced using a phased approach from 2023 onwards. As regards enforcement of the rules once implemented, environmental regulators will be tasked with policing the majority of the provisions in the scheme, with civil and even criminal sanctions available for breaches. The powers to impose these sanctions are likely to be set out in the Environment Bill which is expected to become law in the autumn.

Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers

According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, consumers in the UK use an estimated 14 billion plastic drinks bottles, 9 billion drinks cans and 5 billion glass bottles each year. As such, the UK, Wales and Northern Ireland governments have launched a joint consultation on proposals to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), which will create financial incentives for consumers to take their empty drinks containers to return points hosted by retailers. It is hoped that the DRS will lead to increased levels of recycling of these containers, thereby minimising waste and improving resource efficiency productivity in the UK.

As with the EPR scheme, this consultation follows an earlier 2019 consultation on introducing a DRS which was met with support at the time. The new consultation builds on the 2019 consultation, but also  seeks to explore how best to structure a DRS scheme post-Covid-19. The consultation does not cover Scotland, as the Scottish government has already set out its own plans to implement a DRS scheme.

It was previously hoped that the scheme would be introduced in 2023. However the new consultation makes it clear that the earliest possible date for introduction of the DRS would now be 2024.

Osborne Clarke Comment

Both the EPR and DRS schemes are likely to have a significant impact in reducing waste and increasing recycling rates as the UK governments collectively look to mandate a shift towards a more sustainable use of resources. These are the latest (and certainly not the last) announcements in an area which has already seen government intervention in order to improve producer and consumer behaviours, such as the plastic packaging tax announced in December last year. With the Environment Bill 2020 also expected to become law later in the year, 2021 should prove a significant year for environmental law and regulation across the UK.

Producers should start assessing the sustainability of their packaging and container use now to determine how these new consultations may impact their future operations. They may also want to consider getting ahead of these changes to minimise any disruption and associated costs, as well as improving their own sustainability credentials, which are of increasing value to UK consumers.