Unpacking the Packaging Regulations

I’ve just looked back on a blog I wrote in September about the Scottish Government’s proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme. Now here we are five months later looking at proposals for a scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I won’t cover the same ground as I did back then, other than to say that our response to DEFRA will be very similar: looking at how such a scheme could work in practice, and particularly what role our sector can play without creating disproportionate problems. The biggest set of issues for retailers would come if you’re required to take back bottles and other packaging manually, over the counter, taking considerable time and causing queues, as well as the hygiene issues from receiving and storing dirty packaging.

This time, I want to park those issues (which we’ll be talking about A LOT in the next few weeks) and look at the other issues the government is consulting on alongside a DRS system. These relate to the broader agenda on packaging, plastic and sustainability.

One of the first issues I got involved in with ACS when I joined the team here many years ago was the Packaging Waste Regulations. It was a nightmare to get to grips with as a recent graduate trying to understand policy-making and the convenience store sector at the same time, and I found it useful to start by stepping back from the detail every time I was working on it, to remind myself of why policy-makers in the EU and the UK had decided to introduce this labyrinthine system. The EU wanted to enshrine a “polluter pays” principle across countries so that everyone trading in packaged products would have to bear the environmental costs of those materials and resources. The UK government wanted to divide up that cost on a fair basis among the people sourcing the raw packaging materials, the producers and the retailers, and also to incentivise businesses who recovered their packaging waste. The result of this was a very complicated system where businesses had to calculate the quantity of different materials they were handling, and to account for recovering a proportion of those materials, either through directly ensuring they were recycled or buying proof that they had. OK, so that probably wasn’t a great attempt at simplifying the rationale for the current system, but it’s the best I can do, and it’s important to understand this (in whatever terms work for you) because the government is now going back to square one and reviewing the whole system.

The initial signs are promising, because DEFRA’s starting point is to simplify the system. They’re right, too, because if the regulations are designed to place higher costs on more heavily packaged products using materials that the government wants to discourage, then those incentives apply if they get placed at one single point in the supply chain: wholesalers, retailers and ultimately consumers will have to pay these costs when they purchase those products, while more favourably packaged products will cost less. A single point at which these costs are applied would also strip out the vast bureaucracy associated with everyone in the supply chain calculating the share of packaging they have to recover.

My dealings with this issue suggests that there will be lots more detailed debate on this, but the principle of a single point of obligation seems far better than one of the other options proposed: to bring many more small businesses into the scope of these regulations. That seems to me the worst outcome just on the basis of compliance costs and perhaps more importantly, time.

Then there’s the third part of the packaging consultation trilogy, intertwined with those on DRS and reform of the packaging waste system: a separate plastics tax applied where only a small proportion of the packaging is recycled. Such is the public and environmental concern over plastic, it may be right that it’s being examined in its own right.  However, surely the best approach would be to incorporate any additional incentives into one packaging waste scheme. The current system should teach us to value simplicity and regulatory compliance highly, and I hope this will be a guiding principle as the government looks for lasting and effective solutions. 

This entry was posted by Chloe on Thu, 21/02/2019 - 11:51