In the UK, waste is a devolved issue. The devolved administrations are responsible for setting their own waste regulations. Whilst in the past, packaging regulations have remained consistent across the nations of the UK, this is set to change with the introduction of deposit return schemes (DRSs) and the reform of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging. It seems like having different packaging regulations across the four nations is likely to bring many issues for producers and retailers in terms of labelling, supply chain management and data reporting.
With DRS being introduced in Scotland from August 2023 but the rest of the UK from late 2024 at the earliest (although we are still waiting for this to be confirmed!), this brings the first issue! Producers and retailers will need to start identifying which drinks will end up with consumers in Scotland, remove these from packaging EPR reporting from 1st Jan 2023 (under the draft Packaging Waste (Data Reporting) (England) Regulations 2022) and report these items differently to their other drink sales. Secondly, it’s also been stated that when the rest of the UK introduces DRS, only Wales will include the same materials in the scope as Scotland – glass will not be included in the England and Northern Ireland schemes. In data terms, obligated parties need to know where their drinks will enter the waste stream and then label and report them accordingly. This is complicated and likely to be costly!
Ground litter is the other area of divergence. Scotland and Wales are looking to include this within the litter charges to be introduced from 2024 within the packaging EPR reforms, but England and Northern Ireland are excluding it! Again, this means obligated producers will need to know in which nation their packaging will be disposed of to pay the correct fees. This might be easily achieved for retailers selling direct to the end user, but further up the supply chain, brands don’t have this transparency.
Further afield, the European Commission has now released a draft revision to the European Union’s (EU) Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The proposed revision will accelerate the EU’s goal to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030 and contribute to its aim to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The proposal is packed full of new targets and requirements. It importantly replaces a Directive with a Regulation, meaning that once adopted, each EU member state will have limited flexibility of implementing its proposals. This brings with it positives and negatives for EU producers.
On the plus side, the new Regulation would bring harmonisation across the EU (although some elements do allow for some variation by nation), meaning things like eco-modulation (where packaging EPR fees vary by the environmental performance of the packaging, using various metrics such as recyclability), bans, labels and QR codes, restrictions on void space and recycling and reuse targets would be standardised. This will enable producers to ensure compliance across multiple countries without needing to address wildly different packaging requirements within the EU.
However, what would this mean for producers who also operate in the UK and are dealing with the new, more complex, partially devolved data requirements? Well, it’s likely that our labelling, eco-modulation, fees, compliance points and registration processes will all vary from the rest of the EU! This adds complications for global companies, who will need to ensure UK-specific packaging and compliance, but then again, with EU harmonisation, it’s potentially simpler than the current position!
The proposal also includes new targets for recycled content, such as for plastic drinks bottles at 30% by 2030 and 65% by 2040. The recycled content targets could put pressure on producers, with supply chain bottlenecks and spiralling costs potentially meaning supply cannot meet demand, especially if all producers across the EU have to meet the various plastic recycled content targets (other materials may follow). Again, whilst the UK has recycled content legislation in the form of the Plastic Packaging Tax, which places a £200/tonne tax on any plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content, its thresholds, point of obligation, definitions and processes will no doubt be very different to those in the EU.
Another current divergence between EU and UK plans is the focus on reuse. The EU proposals firmly centre on reuse and refill targets, with some ambitious targets set for key packaging types, such as 20% of takeaway cups by 2030 and 80% by 2040 and, respectively, 10% and 50% for packaging used to deliver online purchases. However, it has to be said that these targets have already been watered down from the leaked draft earlier this month! In contrast, the proposal retains recycling targets of 65% by 2025 and 70% by 2030 from the directive’s last update in 2018, with specific targets per packaging material, along with design criteria and mandatory deposit return schemes (DRS). The UK’s current EPR plans intensely focus on recycling in the short term, with the potential to introduce reuse targets in later revisions but no set targets in the recent reforms. Will the UK follow the EU’s lead and set packaging-specific targets for reuse? Perhaps EU progress will be monitored. First, there are many challenges, such as logistics, storage, infrastructure, food waste and overall environmental impact, to overcome to ensure these systems succeed.
The Commission is also proposing the phase-out of single-use plastic items such as the bags and nets used for food in shops and cafes and the mini shampoo bottles and other miniatures found in hotels and a reduction in packaging waste per capita per member state of up to 15% by 2040, compared to 2018. Nothing like this is included in the UK EPR reforms currently.
It seems like the EU is moving in the right direction, but how achievable these targets and requirements will be and the full impact they will have on producers is debatable. This is also still a proposal, with the next steps for proposals to be presented to the EU Parliament, the EU Council, and all 27 Member States for a consensus to be developed. I can’t see the UK mirroring these regulations in the short term based on the drawn-out process of developing the UK EPR reforms! But at least with a planned review in 2027, it will be possible to align with the EU in some areas if this offers producer benefits of harmonisation and overall environmental improvement. However, I think it’s fair to say that all these new regulations will leave producers with a headache in understanding and implementing what is needed, but let’s hope with some further revisions, they will lead to environmental improvement.