Data stewardship will prove vital as organisations prepare to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging in the UK.

Data stewardship is the collection of practices that ensure an organisation’s data is accessible, usable, safe, and trusted. It includes overseeing every aspect of the data lifecycle: creating, preparing, using, storing, archiving, and deleting data in accordance with an organisation’s established data governance principles for promoting data quality and integrity.

Data stewardship encompasses:

With a ‘full net cost’ system proposed under EPR for Packaging, reform will see producers pay the entire cost of managing their packaging at the end of life – from the collection, transport and recycling to the clean-up of littered items, consumer education and disposal of non-recyclable things. Currently, UK packaging producers only pay a small percentage of these costs, with local authorities picking up the remainder.

However, while this system has been widely agreed on as the most effective solution, it’s only fair that producers know exactly what they’re paying for through a completely transparent mechanism that accurately apportions responsibility. Data is imperative to setting these parameters and ensuring that every material ‘pays its way’.

As the onus grows on quality, transparency and accessibility of data, especially environmental data, if businesses already don’t employ data stewards, they may want to have persons with such responsibility for data stewardship in the future. In some organisations, people are assigned “data steward” as a formal title. Others assume the role in addition to their regular jobs. Either way, the role is indispensable, as data stewards are basically “data ambassadors” between the data team and the user community, with the ultimate goal of empowering users with trusted data.

Data is swiftly overtaking physical assets in terms of value to organisations. Keeping data safe, private, consistent, and of high quality is as important to organisations today as maintaining factory machinery was in the industrial age. Without trusted data, organisations end up with messy and unreliable heaps of information sitting in multiple databases, platforms, and even individual spreadsheets. This could prove disastrous for businesses that will need to report under the new EPR reform due to come in next year. With increased data reporting frequencies and the data reporting requirements under EPR being excessively demanding, many businesses are yet to invest in improving their data capabilities. The burden of collecting the relevant data and compiling bi-annual returns has been highly underestimated by many, and there is likely to be a significant impact, especially on those businesses that have never had to report on packaging data in such detail before.

Users will need to trust the data they are submitting under EPR. If they don’t trust the data, how can they be confident about leveraging it to make better business decisions on the packaging or drive operations? In worst-case scenarios, data of substandard or inconsistent quality will steer organisations in the wrong strategic direction, with disastrous business results such as high EPR fees, packaging formats that, in reality, have a negative environmental impact and packaging strategy in missed targets. By establishing consistent data definitions, maintaining business and technical rules, and monitoring and auditing the reliability of the data, organisations can ensure high levels of data quality, integrity, availability, trustworthiness, and privacy protection.

Managing data lineage is essential to data stewardship and will prove valuable when reporting under EPR. Data lineage is the lifecycle of a piece of data: where it originates, what happens to it, what is done to it, and where it moves over time. With visibility into data lineage, organisations calculating their packaging returns can trace any errors or problems when using data back to their root causes.

Organisations must ensure that they form a bridge between data professionals and the community of people using the data. They must have a big-picture view of how the organisation works and a firm grasp of the down-to-earth details of how data is created, managed, manipulated, stored, and—most importantly—how it’s used. It’s also important to note that data stewardship has two sides.

One is defensive: guard against the regulatory and reputational risks of owning data. The other is using data for strategic advantage and promoting improvements to the business process that create and consume data. Businesses should constantly work to inspire users to make the most out of the data—consistently, accurately, and safely—to make smarter business decisions each day.

Over time, those businesses with solid packaging data will see their employees perform better. They will make fewer errors, submit the correct data to authorities, and pay the proper fees. They will also prioritise the right environmental initiatives while following data governance policies and processes.