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Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

Despite the UK apparently taking a relaxed approach to extended producer responsibility, the industry consensus is that EPR holds the key to reducing litter, increasing recycling and creating a circular economy. Maxine Perella reports

Just before Christmas, reports emerged of Defra’s waste minister Thérèse Coffey lobbying the European Commission to weaken its stance on extended producer responsibility (EPR) – EPR regulation being one of the key proposals mooted in the forthcoming EU Circular Economy Package

Contrast this with scenes inside the Scottish Parliament in the week leading up to Christmas, where campaign groups were pushing for the introduction of a national deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks packaging. The event was sponsored by Scotland’s former environment minister Richard Lochhead, who is leading calls for the creation of a DRS, with the support of a number of Scottish and international pressure groups, including Greenpeace.

Lochhead may no longer hold such an influential grip on policy, but his successor, Roseanna Cunningham, appears keen to get her teeth into the issue. The Scottish Environment Secretary told RWW in a recent interview that EPR was “something we will want to start real debate on” and pointed to Scotland’s remanufacturing movement as an opportunity where it could be taken forward.

Whether any of the UK’s four nations will be bold enough to legislate for EPR remains to be seen, but there is growing consensus within the industry that more waste streams – particularly problematic ones such as litter, mattresses, tyres and certain plastics – might benefit from such intervention.

In January, Green Alliance report Recycling reset: How England can stop subsidising waste called for a shake-up of the producer responsibility system amid falling recycling rates in England. It is the latest in a series of studies suggesting that producers should help subsidise the cost of recycling collections, a burden which largely falls to local authorities.

Jessica Twemlow, circular economy business area manager at Ricardo Energy & Environment, thinks EPR intervention on litter could have a significant impact for local authorities.

“Cigarette butts, chewing gum, fast-food packaging and drinks packaging are some of the most littered items in the UK, and cost local authorities in the region of £300 million each year to clean up,” she says. “If EPR for the most frequently littered items was introduced, the money raised could be used by local authorities to cover litter clean-up costs or help fund anti-litter campaigns.”

She emphasises the need for EPR intervention to be linked to environmental protection. “EPR needs to be focused on the products and materials that are causing the greatest potential environmental damage.”

Role of EPR in tackling litter

Towards the end of last year, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) published a short report looking at the role of EPR in tackling litter. It made reference to the government’s promise of a litter strategy, which presents an opportunity for ministers to examine this issue in detail. Around the same time, the ESA also held an EPR stakeholder event on packaging waste to discuss alternatives to the current packaging recovery note (PRN) system, which were mooted in an earlier report it produced.

Asked about the outcome of this event, ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler says there was broad consensus among those present that the PRN system needs to be changed. “Without change, the current system will fail to deliver any more than current recycling performance.

“Changing the PRN system gives an opportunity to think about other, broader objectives that we might wish our producer responsibility systems to address, such as carbon minimisation or value maximisation.”

However, he acknowledges that changing the PRN system is not without its challenges. “There is a tension between the interests of councils and producers. If a new system is to continue to keep costs down for producers, then some councils – such as those in highly urban areas or highly rural areas – with higher cost collections might struggle to benefit from the scheme. This creates equity issues among local authorities.

“But if we are to create a system which supports a wider range of local authorities, then that will pass additional costs onto producers. The difficulty for everyone is to find a solution which can balance these conflicting pressures.”

Phil Conran, director at 360 Environmental, fed into the ESA’s report on PRN alternatives and was also at the stakeholder meeting. He says there was strong consensus in the room that any future PRN reform or EPR system needed to form part of a cohesive national resource management strategy – not just be an isolated regulatory application to meet Article 8a of the Waste Framework Directive, the proposed new EPR requirement in the Circular Economy Package.

“There was less concern expressed by the packaging and producer community than I was expecting,” he says. “There seemed to be broad agreement that there would have to be a change, but fears over excessive and uncontrolled costs being heaped onto producers seem to have been dissipated through the options presented.”

Government action?

On the surface this all sounds optimistic, but are we likely to see ministerial action on EPR anytime soon, especially given Brexit deliberations? “I sense that it’s all to play for this year,” says Dr Dominic Hogg, chairman at Eunomia Research & Consulting.

“If Defra doesn’t change things at the UK level, I expect the devolved administrations will act to widen further the gap between their strategies and the one forged in Whitehall. It would be preferable, though, for Defra to reacquaint itself with policy-making.”

Twemlow feels EPR will be a low priority for government in 2017. However, she says the Circular Economy Package is likely to have far-reaching implications, even if the UK doesn’t adopt it.

“Whatever happens during the Brexit negotiations, if UK manufacturers want to sell products into the EU market in the future they will need to comply with EU product standards. This will likely mean designing products that are suitable for reuse, reduce the use of toxic and hazardous substances, and are easy to disassemble and recycle.”

Like many, Hogg believes the impetus for EPR is strongest in Scotland. He points to the DRS scheme but argues that a UK-wide scheme would be preferable, not least because it would be easier to administer.

“If Scotland wants to move ahead with an approach that’s clearly superior to what is in place, and if it has to do that alone, then I think it should be congratulated for seeking to do so. But clearly, a UK-wide DRS would be more effective than one for Scotland alone, as more beverage containers would be covered
by the scheme.”

This view is echoed by Twemlow, who says if EPR geographical coverage can be scaled up, it would provide more opportunities for investment and infrastructure development. She also feels there may be commercial concerns if EPR were to be confined to just one nation.

“If Wales and Scotland were to pursue separate producer responsibility schemes, then there would be implications for businesses, consumers, local authorities and the regulators. For example, cross-border
trade would be an issue for a Scotland-only DRS system.

“Containers purchased in England could be brought to Scotland for refund of a deposit, unless a specific labelling system were implemented or other measures introduced to prevent it,” adds Twemlow.

Zero Waste Scotland has undertaken extensive modelling work on a national DRS scheme, and has also assessed the feasibility of introducing a devolved PRN system for Scotland. Its chief executive Iain Gulland says that while EPR “is a matter for the Scottish government”, he believes it can play
an important role in helping to deliver a circular economy for the country.

“It’s not the only tool in the box, but it can be an important one to drive system-wide change across a
sector or product category, rather than relying on disruptive innovation and organic change. There are clear actions in the Scottish government’s circular economy strategy launched last year around EPR, including the development of a single framework.”

Gulland continues: “The key challenge is the tension that could arise from pressures to adopt new EPR schemes, or toughen existing ones simply to provide funding to support current recycling collection infrastructure. Our objective goes further, looking at how EPR could be applied to encourage better product design, create jobs through repurposing of products at end of life, and increase recycling rates. EPR could lead to a completely different collection or takeback infrastructure, or even the greater adoption of leasing models for key products by manufacturers.”

That said, Hogg doesn’t underestimate the desire in England and Wales for change.

“If there hasn’t been much real action as yet, I sense a gathering of momentum behind the view that what we have is not fit for purpose. There’s a certain logic about changing the scheme to fit our needs in the wake of the referendum vote – after all, we’re either going to be faced with higher EU recycling targets or we’re going to be rejigging the law to fit with exit plans.”

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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