Defra EPR response a positive milestone

Isabel Clifford, May 25, 2022

A duo of long-awaited government announcements signals how the waste industry will tackle some of the biggest issues in our sector. While some elements are welcomed, others could have been better thought through, argues the ESA’s Policy and Public Affairs Officer, Isabel Clifford

Defra’s response to its second-round consultation on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) provided long-awaited answers to questions that have been hanging over our sector for four years now but, although this marked a positive milestone in the right direction, a number of question marks still remain. 

We were pleased to see that the new EPR regime will make use of modulated fees, placing differential compliance fee rates on various materials and packaging formats, favouring those which are easier to recycle in practice. Obligated producers will start reporting next year and fees will be introduced in 2024 apportioned according to disposal costs – with modulated fees based on recyclability assessments due to come into effect in 2025. 

The move to modulated fees to incentivise and emphasise recyclability of packaging should help offset some of the recent knee-jerk transitions to harder-to-recycle formats, while Defra’s approach to EPR payments has also sensibly dropped some elements which we considered would not incentivise the pursuit of better recycling performance across the value chain. Downstream recycling performance, however, looks like it will have to rely upon the collection consistency agenda as the principal driver for boosting quantity and quality of materials from household collections without much support from EPR in this area, beyond funding. 

On collection consistency, Defra’s response signalled that packaging would move to a binary recycling labelling system, which will help improve material quality by reducing contamination and make life easier for consumers. Defra also revealed that biodegradable and compostable packaging will carry a ‘do not recycle” designation, which again should help avoid contamination of the other recycling streams and this provides a clear signal to the packaging supply chain about the use of this material. 

However, details about the new consistency regime were somewhat sparse and a full response to the consultation on this critical area of the Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS) is not expected until later this year. As the consultations themselves were staggered, so too is Defra’s response to them – leaving investment and operational decisions somewhat in continued limbo until the market understands the economic implications of the RWS as a single joined-up system.  

To Defra’s credit they have clearly listened to the industry over EPR payments for household-like waste collected from businesses, which is a very complex challenge that was not adequately resolved in the view of a number of stakeholder industries, prior to the response being published. The ESA was subsequently pleased to see that this has been deferred subject to a taskforce conducting additional detailed work and a review in 2026/27. 

The picture on a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is less sensible, with the announcement that England will have an “all-in” DRS for packaging materials other than glass. The removal of glass helps with practical issues and quality of the collected material, but the ESA is disappointed that this system looks set to disrupt efficient, effective and well-established kerbside collections – while also raising lots of questions about how DRS material that leaks out of the system will be treated within the scheme. 

As the final policy detail of the RWS emerges later this year, of utmost importance is that both EPR and DRS deliver more and better quality material for domestic recycling markets if the UK is going to attract investment in its own circular economy. 

*This article was first published in the CIWM Circular magazine (May/June 2022 edition), and has been reproduced with kind permission.