Are the UK government serious about going green?

Are the UK government serious about going green?

By Irvin Newbitt, CEO of Ecoveritas

Well, well, plans to park Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging for 12 months were announced on Tuesday, July 25th, with the sector picking what has fast become a political football out of its own net – again!

Plagued by a high level of malevolence, more so in recent months, Defra nervously wheeled out its latest communique and unveiled one of its worst-kept secrets.

Not a political asteroid – yet – but a clear admission that after five years, two rounds of formal consultation, and untold hours spent in preparation, critical waste reforms continue to be hamstrung by dither and delay.

Updated Defra EPR guidance read: “There’s been a decision to defer extended producer responsibility for packaging fees for one year.”

The department added a delay that would help ‘drive down inflation’.

However, because nothing in the EPR rollout is ever as simple as it appears, not all aspects of the reform are delayed – just the fees. The new data collection requirements won’t be delayed, so you’ll still be expected to report on packaging in a brand-new way by 1st October (registrations open in August) for packaging sold in H1 of 2023. So not all is lost!

A while ago, we said that you need to do something at some point instead of trying to reach a full consensus. We didn’t think it would be this.

Received wisdom is that when travelling with small children, ‘getting there’ is far harder than ‘being there’ – and, well, the same applies here. Progress has been glacially slow as the gears are continually jammed up by minutiae that are ultimately less important than the big picture.

Ultimately, the waste management fees that were to be paid to local authorities, and the consistent collection framework that was due to follow afterwards, are to be delayed by another 12 months – until 2025.

A swirling fog of unanswered questions – yet-to-be-published consistency of collections, EPR fees still not available, a scheme administrator still yet to be appointed, and timescales now somewhat irrelevant – have given way to a stark lack of confidence that the plan could move out of the current stall it is in. And then came the announcement.

Finger-pointing gets you nowhere, but essentially, this policy has continually struggled to find the appropriate in-tray, never mind the kind of political will from senior politicians required to get this over the line. It has never had its fair share of focus—a dedicated driving force. Instead, civil servants have spent months desperately trying to Sellotape and glue it back together before ultimately realising that this hotch-potch iteration wouldn’t work and mission make-do-and-mend had run out of road. That is the sad reality. And that is the genesis of where we are today.

Of primary concern was the risk the recycling levy poses to already soaring inflation. But this has always been a very predictable smoke screen. And when you contrast the industry’s position with the urgency of the climate crisis, whatever way you look at it, these are damaging actions.

For some, the writing is on the wall. Another desperately needed packaging and waste reform kicked into the long grass of the next government, sending the department’s policy-making prowess plummeting to new lows. To others, a sensible decision and better to get the detail right than rushing to meet an impossible deadline. Either way, we have now lost crucial momentum.

And if history has told us anything, we could be in the waiting lounge for many more years. This is a wait, though, that we should be prepared to see through.

The Resources and Waste Strategy in late 2018 was a much-needed intervention for our sector, regardless of how much you agreed or disagreed. A clear policy direction gave us a sense of optimism and energy to replace our frustration after years of no policy steer.

Unfortunately, the Resources and Waste Strategy slipped with each of the five years that have elapsed since. We’ve had four Defra secretaries, then you can factor in Covid, the fallout from Brexit, the war in Ukraine, the Liz Truss fiasco, the energy crunch, and the cost-of-living crisis, and its clear to see why many saw this further delay coming.

Since then, the work and announcements on the three policies have splintered and been delayed, and this has caused a great deal of frustration. It is still difficult to know the next steps until we get the Government release and thoughts on consistent collections.

Inevitably, there are suspicions the full strategy might never happen.

The delay means another year of excessive packaging impacting our environment. And the fear is that EPR has become one of several delayed or abandoned green policies that would have imposed a direct cost on consumers, which has been politicised.

The worry is the last five years of work and engagement with the sector are rapidly eroding, along with our optimism and energy. That’s why it is now crucial that government, industry, and councils all put their foot on the floor in planning full implementation from 2025.

Our mission remains to rise above this confusion and advocate for progressive change. We continue to stand ready to work with the government and industry to implement an EPR scheme that delivers a high level of recycling and effectively tackles packaging waste.

And remember, the businesses that embrace change – and the political party that helps them – will be the ones that win.

READ MORE: A handy guide to all things Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Find out what you need to know, including why it’s important, whether it applies to you, timelines, what to do and much more.

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