14 August 2023

Why the Government’s long-delayed waste reforms must go beyond recycling

By Kitty Thompson

We throw away 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging each year. From crisp packets to sweet wrappers, too much packaging that is put on the market cannot be readily recycled by our waste system. It damages our environment, wastes resources and council taxpayers are left to pick up the bill.

Our current system has seen household recycling rates stagnate at 44% and does not do enough to discourage wasteful packaging. Restricted by budgets and bureaucracy, local authorities cannot provide the necessary agility to cope with ever-growing and ever more complex waste streams. Our council tax pays for a system that is confusing and inefficient.

Recognising the problem is one thing, but it has become clear that developing an appropriate solution is very much another. Five years on from the Government stating its intention, we are still years away from the game changing reforms to our recycling system that we were promised.

The vehicle for this change is based on a simple and profoundly conservative principle: the polluter, not the taxpayer, should pay for the cost of clearing up the pollution they cause. The unglamorously named ‘extended producer responsibility’ scheme (EPR) seeks to do exactly this. At its core, EPR moves the cost of collecting and processing waste from council taxes onto packaging producers.

By forcing the market to internalise the cost of packaging waste, and rewarding the use of recyclable packaging, producers of this packaging are incentivised to minimise waste. There will be no financial motivation to pollute and producers will have an interest in ensuring the waste system works.

Motivated packaging producers can, in turn, spur investment, creating new jobs and business opportunities in the process. With less packaging in total, and more recyclable packaging in general, pollution can be reduced.

Indeed, this scenario has played out all over the world. British Columbia, Belgium and South Korea, for example, each benefit from collection and recycling rates of over 75% thanks to their EPR policies.

For Conservatives, the reason for this success should be clear. When businesses, rather than the state, are footing the bill, this quite rightly puts value for money front and centre. But what will businesses actually be paying for? If the answer is the current waste system, unchanged, this simply will not fly in the private sector.

With sufficient time and information to prepare, most of the industry agrees that a well executed EPR scheme is a good thing that can cut pollution and improve the waste system.

However, a lack of clarity and guidance by Defra in advance of the roll out has raised concerns about high costs being passed onto consumers during a cost of living crisis. The Government has acknowledged these concerns by announcing a year-long delay to EPR.

With an extra year to get EPR right, I urge the Government to do the following:

Firstly, put industry at the helm. One key issue has been the Government’s decision to let a public body manage the new scheme, rather than for it to be industry-led. The scheme administrator will determine how producers pay fees and how to maximise the efficiency of the desired scheme outcomes.

A public body, producers worry, will limit the attractiveness of EPR for investment and its ability to easily adapt to innovations in the waste and packaging sectors. This decision goes against the grain of many other nations’ EPR schemes.

According to the Environment Secretary, this decision can be blamed on the Office for National Statistics ,which has rules about which type of organisation can be designated as scheme administrator. This complication must be resolved if we are to create the EPR scheme we need.

If the ONS decision cannot be reversed, stronger assurances about how this new public body will ensure EPR fees are spent and how EPR will lead to different, better outcomes are required. This will be vital as our conception of ‘better’ changes.

Which leads nicely on to a crucial second point: we must go beyond recycling. The rise of reusable packaging means the waste system is set to become even more complex. Environmentally preferable, but more logistically complex, reuse is being trialled across the industry, from giants like Coca-Cola and Unilever to savvy startups like CLUBZERØ and Again.

While there are multiple ways to reduce packaging pollution, reuse at scale can trump recycling. Unfortunately, so keen to push ahead with EPR, Defra has not yet factored this in. Hidden away in the back of documents, reusable packaging is regarded as a future problem, rather than an environmental opportunity to incentivise now.

By focusing almost entirely on recyclability, the Government risks penalising packaging ingenuity in the short term and in the long term designing an EPR scheme that, while appropriate in 2018, will become increasingly irrelevant with each passing year.

With one year of extra time granted, pivoting towards an EPR scheme that incentivises better environmental outcomes, not just better recycling rates, is vital.

We are all united in the goal to tackle packaging pollution. Making the polluter pay is a sensible step towards solving it. But for EPR to work, it is imperative that the voice of business is listened to in the scheme’s design. Having bought itself a year of extra time, Defra must use it wisely to create a scheme worthy of the many years it will have taken to devise it.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Kitty Thompson is Nature Programme Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.