Are we there yet? Not Yet!

EPR: Are we there yet? Not Yet!

By Andrew McCaffery, Chief Strategy Officer at Ecoveritas

We’d love to entertain you en route, but in the serious multi-billion-pound business of waste reforms, we didn’t think you’d end up here looking for twenty-five ways to keep the peace on long journeys.

In truth, we thought key stakeholders were older, wiser, and capable of making significantly better choices.

Received wisdom has it that when travelling with small children, ‘getting there’ is far harder than ‘being there’ – and, well, the same applies here with Cabinet ministers reportedly at loggerheads over the rollout of these flagship recycling reforms. Progress is slow as the gears are continually jammed up by minutiae that are ultimately less important than the big picture.

Of primary concern at a Downing Street crisis summit earlier this month was the risk the recycling levy poses to already soaring inflation.

A swirling fog of unanswered questions is causing this current impasse – consistency of collections still not published, EPR fees still not available, a scheme administrator still yet to be appointed, and rising doubts over timescales – there is, no doubt, a distinct lack of confidence that the plan can move out of the current stall it appears to be in.

EPR is due to be rolled out in 2024, with producers already gathering data on packaging ready for payments. Defra assures its commitment to working closely with industry stakeholders while finalising the EPR scheme’s design and delivery plans.

If you change how you look at things, the things you look at change. Change has been on the cards for some time in the packaging industry, and after all the talk, it looked as though it would soon become a reality. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has already begun altering the landscape, and packaging professionals must readjust to meet it.

Across the board, businesses are facing unprecedented upheaval, prompting some to make changes in preparation for EPR.

EPR is about progress, not perfection. It calls for a big-picture perspective on today’s environmental and economic challenges and plotting a more hopeful course of action. After all, this hope will pull people along with it. We’ve said it before, but EPR should be a shining beacon in the sky.

Instead, we seem to be caught in a downward spiral of negativity, and you get that sense of déjà vu regarding proposed positive recycling and waste policy changes stalling.

Recently, the policy has been plagued by lobbying from producer associations calling for an urgent reconsideration. Admittedly, there is very little new information about the future, which is hugely frustrating for those who have worked hard. Still, concerns around cost-of-living and inflation targets were highlighted from the very start.

If the policy is good for the planet and the environment, we need the willpower to implement it, even when it is not universally popular. We must move away from the status quo and this inherent predisposition towards pessimism. We’re completely misjudging the power of the consumer in all of this. When you contrast the industry’s position with the urgency of the climate crisis, these are damaging actions.

READ MORE: Using EPR to create stories that matter. Sustainability is often the sum of many obvious thoughts and simple actions, resulting in a powerful and largely positive impact. It is spotting these actions that Ecoveritas, or more specifically, data, can help with.

The longer we delay the more we will pay

Packaging design and formats, sustainable materials, labelling requirements, use of recycled content, recyclability and EPR fees are only some of the high priorities for the businesses on our platform.

From what we’ve often seen, the level of innovation and the pace of change from packaging manufacturers is impressive. Many positive steps have already been taken, but treading lightly on the planet is complex and data-intensive work. Steps, nonetheless, have been taken.

Many packaging manufacturers will have put a lot of thought into designing something that will hit EPR requirements, particularly where different players in the packaging chain have different responsibilities. Any further fine-tuning must ensure EPR rewards people for doing the right thing instead of penalising them.

The current economic pressures are undoubtedly causing disruption, and unsurprisingly, eyes may have been diverted elsewhere. But we have come to understand how this plays out.

The failure to achieve a UK-wide reform of waste and recycling services is a case study of back-sliding, incompetence, and political amnesia.

Back in 2018, then Defra Secretary Michael Gove shepherded a well-thought-through Resources and Waste Strategy to reform waste collection and recycling services in England.

Unfortunately, the Resources and Waste Strategy slipped with each of the four 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 that might give you a better idea of why.

Also, essential consultations have been missed, and deadlines have slipped. Last year a national scheme administrator was supposed to be in place. It didn’t happen. Long-delayed EPR is due to begin nationally in 2024 and DRS the following year for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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

One thing at a time

When everything you do in today’s complex, dynamic business environment impacts the planet, where do you start?

While a lot is said about the ‘why’ of sustainable business, there is much less about the ‘how’. From our experience, the answer is trust. And trust in the process is something that has all but disappeared.

Yes, it is an unenviable task and a huge agenda, but failure to conjure a new story that can galvanise the largest “we” in human history, and to change our strategies and tactics to excel at solving the world’s challenges profitably, would be an unforgivable error of judgement – especially given how much water has passed under the bridge.

For businesses tackling today’s ecological and social pressures, a very different response is required – one that existing strategy frameworks fail adequately to address.

Will we have the skills to manage this blended mission of traditional financial value and societal change? We’ve begun a new game, and instead of creating a path to a better, more resilient, and more profitable way of doing business, leaders are stalling.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) represents a viable way of making the recycling loop less open and more closed. Not a silver bullet. But then, who said it was?

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.

Instead, EPR is like a compass pointing to a more sustainable way, a much-needed foothold on our climb out of the waste crisis.

Businesses and governments lurching from one crisis to another has created a death spiral. In this case, you must stop the negative momentum. Figure out what the breaker is and what underlying forces drive the negativity and apply our full force to address the issue.

Why? Because with little to no uptake or commitment, we are back to the drawing board with limited paper to plot our path. There is also the strong prospect of a better-the-devil-you-know-scenario. We ought to be very careful about what we wish for.

The most important brands in the world make us feel something. They achieve that because they have something they want to change, and customers want to be part of that change. These companies connect because they have a reason to exist over and above making a profit.

People may love the product they make, but what they love most about them is the change they are making. Their raw purpose is a source of authenticity. It’s a sign they still care. It’s an antidote to the apathy many brands still face.

Done right, minus the steady stream of criticism, there needn’t be a trade-off between doing business responsibly and good financial outcomes.

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