EPR, DRS and consistent collections: a perfect fit?

The three pillars of the UK government’s waste strategy – EPR, DRS and consistent collections – are supposed to work together harmoniously but, with cracks appearing even at the planning stage, are we really on the right track? Andrea Lockerbie explores.

For well over a decade, those involved in recycling and waste have been calling for better quality recycling from households, more consistent recycling systems, better labelling to eliminate confusion, and a ‘polluter pays’ approach to packaging to ensure that producers stump up for the full cost of managing their packaging when it becomes waste – otherwise known as extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Commitments to introduce EPR were made by the UK government and devolved administrations in strategy documents including the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy for England and the Welsh Government’s Beyond Recycling.

This has now brought us closer to implementation of the package of three policies collectively known as CPR – the Collection and Packaging Reforms: EPR for Packaging; consistent municipal recycling collections in England; and the deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But there are still lots of questions and concerns about how these policies translate into workable operational practice. The methods and calculations used are uncertain, as are the costs and funding, the timelines, and whether DRS is actually needed.

Consultations for these policies started back in 2019, with second consultations for each running at different times in 2021. The government published its response to the EPR consultation in March 2022 and for DRS in January 2023. At the time of writing, it had yet to publish the response for consistent collections.

The slow release of the government’s responses to the three policy consultations has left stakeholders feeling vexed and unable to make operational and investment decisions until they understand the full picture provided by all three components.

The slow release of the government’s responses to the three policy consultations has left stakeholders feeling vexed and unable to make operational and investment decisions until they understand the full picture provided by all three components.

For EPR, a scheme administrator is expected to be in place by the end of this year, ahead of its phased introduction next year, with modulated fees for producers coming in from 2025. Payments will be made to local authorities for collection of household packaging waste disposed of on-the-go in street bins.

The idea is for this money to support improved recycling collections for households and the delivery of consistent collections. This includes provision for the collection of additional packaging materials for recycling, such as plastic films, due to start by 31 March 2027. The final list of exactly what consistent collections cover is still to be confirmed, but consistency reforms are intended to be introduced by the time EPR is implemented.

Government has said that costs for in-scope EPR materials must relate to the delivery of ‘efficient and effective systems’. Local authorities want to know what this means, but that’s a definition the scheme administrator will have to make – along with how to calculate payments.

England and Northern Ireland will have no EPR payments for packaging that’s been littered, which has brought criticism for failing to apply the ‘polluter pays’ approach to this problematic waste stream. On the other hand, Scotland and Wales are expected to put obligations on producers for these costs.

When it comes to who will pay for packaging EPR, controversy still exists. An interim solution is based around the current Packaging Waste Recovery Note (PRN) and Packaging Waste Export Recovery Note (PERN) systems.

The establishment of a taskforce is meant to help develop options ahead of a review in 2026/27, but the government has recognised that there is a risk in continuing the PRN: If DRS materials are collected with EPR packaging then this could undermine the effective functioning of the PRN market. That is if reprocessors and exporters are not able to clearly and robustly exclude DRS containers that remain mixed with EPR material.

This need for accurate data and sorting will be critical for ensuring that these policies function as intended and the payments flow correctly.

A coming together?


Local authorities are concerned at the practical, operational and administrative complexity of the interlinked policies. For example, clarity is needed on the method by which deposits can be claimed on DRS material that ends up in local authority collections and what ‘the quality required for return’ is.

MRFs will have to upgrade and adapt to identify DRS and EPR material and will miss much of their high-value aluminium and PET from their infeed. A recent survey of ESA members found that a quarter of sites would require major upgrades of up to £50 million each and shutdowns of around a year. Minor upgrades to other sites are likely to mean month long shutdowns.

Those involved in the AI technology increasingly used to identify materials at MRFs also feel that it’s crucial to get the right policies in place in the right order to get the desired outcomes. Mikela Druckman, chief executive at Greyparrot, backs views expressed by many, including CIWM, The Recycling Association, NAWDO and the ESA, that EPR should come in and be assessed before DRS is rolled out.

‘We have argued that consistent collections and EPR should be introduced first, as both policies have the potential to deliver many of the same outcomes as DRS,’ says Patrick Brighty, Recycling Policy Advisor at ESA. ‘This would have allowed Defra to gauge the efficacy of these policies, and then tailor a bespoke DRS to complement the rest of the system and target any remaining challenging materials.’

He adds: ‘Considering that one of Defra’s key motivations for a DRS was to move us from 70 per cent collection of PET bottles to 90 per cent, it is interesting to note that Belgium captures 95 per cent of PET bottles just through its EPR system, with no DRS in sight.’

All in?

The government announced in January that a DRS for England, Wales and Northern Ireland will go live on 1 October 2025 with an ‘all-in’ scheme covering containers from 50ml to three litres. In England and Northern Ireland, it covers PET plastic bottles, steel and aluminium cans. In Wales – as in Scotland – it will also include glass bottles. That’s an inconsistency that Keep Britain Tidy says will ‘create confusion for consumers, costs for producers, potential loopholes and cross-border issues’.

Scotland’s DRS has been delayed until 2024 and has received much criticism from the food and drink industry. As a result, the scheme administrator, Circularity Scotland, recently announced a £22m support package to reduce the cost and administrative burden to producers.

Defra has said it will focus on drafting the regulations to set out the requirements needed to deliver a DRS this year. England and Northern Ireland will have joint legislation, while Wales will be producing its own legislation.

Scotland’s DRS has been delayed until 2024 and has received much criticism from the food and drink industry

The appointment of a Deposit Management Organisation (DMO) will then take place, and it will decide how it operates, the specifics of labelling, and the deposit level. It will also meet the cost of setting up the scheme. There will be two legally separate schemes – one for England and Northern Ireland, and one for Wales.

Ongoing DRS engagement with stakeholders will continue to work out issues such as how to handle take-back for online deliveries. Defra has said it is ‘interested in keeping the option of using digital DRS technology open’, while the Welsh government is continuing to support the evaluation of a digital DRS with a town-scale pilot running this spring.

As it stands, there are still many issues and details to work out – within challenging timescales – particularly around the interdependencies of the reforms. The industry is generally supportive, but is seeking greater clarity and less complexity, something not helped by the differing approaches of nations.

Time will tell whether the reforms deliver the desired outcomes. In the meantime, producers, local authorities, waste companies and other stakeholders will need to pull together, think creatively, and embrace the challenge of finding the best way forward.

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