The UK generates around 11.6 million tonnes of packaging waste annually, but packaging producers only pay around 10% of the cost of dealing with that waste. The government has set an ambitious commitment to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2025 and eliminate avoidable waste by 2050. Over several years, there has been increasing regulation of packaging materials, especially single-use plastics. We summarise below the current UK packaging regulations and highlight the upcoming changes that will help the UK meet its waste targets.
The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 (which implemented requirements under the EU Packaging Waste Directive 1994) is retained EU law and sets out minimum standards and requirements for packaging. This includes limiting the use of noxious or hazardous substances such as mercury and lead, which can leach into land and water supplies.
Businesses must gather information from their suppliers on the composition characteristics of the packaging they provide, test packaging materials for compliance and record packaging quantities to assess the environmental impact of the packaging used. The overall aim of these regulations is to limit the amount of packaging material that is generated in the first place to reduce the need to recycle or reprocess waste packaging material, which has an environmental impact in itself.
In the EU, the proposed new Packaging Regulation significantly enhances the existing EU Packaging Waste Directive with the aim of minimising the environmental impact of packaging by eg, increasing the use of recycled plastics, promoting compostable packaging, and introducing quotas for reusable packaging. The proposal, which is expected to take effect in the EU later this year, has not, however, been replicated in the UK.
The use of plastic in packaging is a real issue globally as it is typically only used for a short period of time and then disposed of. In the UK, plastic packaging accounts for 44% of all UK plastic and 67% of all UK plastic waste. To deal with this, in 2022, the government introduced the Plastic Packaging Tax (General) Regulations 2022 as part of a range of measures aimed at reducing emissions to net zero and meeting the government's 2042 target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. Under the Regulations, finished plastic packaging manufactured or imported into the UK, which does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic, is taxed at £210.82 per tonne. This is intended to incentive the use of recycled plastic in the manufacture of plastic packaging and divert plastic waste away from landfills and incineration.
The government recently concluded a consultation on allowing a mass balance approach for calculating the proportion of recycled content in plastic packaging. This would enable better tracking of materials through complex value chains and would ensure the credibility and transparency of associated recycling and sustainability claims. A report on the outcome of the consultation is expected shortly.
As well as regulating packaging material itself, the UK also imposes obligations on certain producers of packaging and packaging materials to pay the cost of recycling packaging waste via the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007.
'Obligated producers' are those which have an annual revenue of at least £2m and have handled more than 50 tonnes of packaging or packaging material in a year. They must report on the amount of packaging they have handled and demonstrate to the regulator that they have paid to recover or recycle a specified tonnage of packaging waste to account for the new packaging they have put into the UK market.
The government has consulted on reforming the producer responsibility regime over several years. It intends to introduce a new scheme to increase the responsibilities of packaging producers beyond the obligations found in the 2007 Regulations. Under the new regime, termed the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, the total cost of collection and end-of-life treatment for household packaging waste would be passed on to packaging producers. It is hoped that this new scheme will encourage producers to use less packaging and more recyclable materials and reduce the amount of hard-to-recycle packaging placed on the UK market, with the aim of increasing the UK's packaging waste recycling rate to 78% by 2030.
What organisations will the scheme apply to?
The EPR scheme will apply to organisations that:
What obligations will an organisation have under the scheme?
A producer's obligations under the scheme will depend on the organisation's size. Small organisations (revenue of £1-£2m and handles/supplies 25+ tonnes of empty packaging and packaged items per year) will be required to record data regarding all empty packaging and packaging items handled or supplied throughout the UK market. Larger organisations (revenue of over £2m and handles/supplies more than 50 tonnes of empty packaging and packaged items per year) will have more onerous obligations, including paying fees to the environmental regulator and purchasing packaging waste recycling notes (PRNs) and packaging waste export recycling notes (PERNs) to evidence that they have paid a packaging reprocessor to recycle an amount of packaging waste equivalent to the packaging material it has handled or supplied.
Packaging waste reporting
The Packaging Waste (Data Reporting) Regulations 2023 came into force in England in February 2023, as the first step towards implementing the EPR scheme. Under the Regulations, organisations have been required to collect and report on the amount and type of packaging they place on the market in the UK since March 2023. This data will eventually be used to calculate the fees they will be required to pay. Smaller producers must maintain records of the total weight of packaging they have supplied and a breakdown of the type of packaging. Large producers must collect a wider pool of information, including the packaging waste they have collected and sent for recycling.
These Regulations will be amended by the Packaging Waste (Data Reporting) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2024 from 1 April 2024 to eg revise the definition of "household packaging" and clarify the division of responsibilities brand owners, packers/fillers, importers and first UK owners, and distributors. Regulations are being made separately in the devolved administrations. The government has published specific guidance on collecting data.
The Data Regulations 2023 are ultimately expected to be superseded by the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging and Packaging Waste) Regulations 2024, which will implement the full EPR scheme (and will include equivalent data collection provisions).
Implementation delay until 2025
The current producer responsibilities system is estimated to cost UK companies between £200-300m, but this is expected to rise to £2.7bn as organisations invest in tracking and reporting systems, waste management infrastructure and recycling processes that will enable their compliance with the new EPR scheme. There are also a number of administrative complexities that still need to be overcome. Therefore, after extensive engagement with industry, the government has deferred the introduction of the full EPR scheme, including payments, PRNs and PERNs until 2025.
It is expected that amendments and refinements to the draft Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging and Packaging Waste) Regulations 2024 will be published this spring, ahead of introduction later this year. As a result of this delay, the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007, which were due to expire in 2023, have been extended and will remain in force through to the end of 2024.
In addition to introducing the EPR scheme, the UK government has recently published a Response to an independent review on Pro-Innovation Regulation of Technologies led by Professor Dame Angela McLean, the government's Chief Scientific Adviser. The review sets out how regulations and standards can promote innovative technologies in the context of various sectors, including Advanced Manufacturing.
The review recommended that the government should work with trade bodies, sector councils and other relevant bodies to, among other things, promote a circular economy; a model of production and consumption which involves reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible, to reduce or eliminate the need for new materials.
This is particularly pertinent to packaging material, which primarily operates on a linear model but is highly inefficient and environmentally degenerative. It is predicted that a shift to a circular economy in key sectors such as packaging, construction, electronics, and food could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2050.
To drive this change, the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult is establishing a Design for Sustainability and Circularity Framework that will help UK manufacturers design products, such as next-generation packaging material, using circular resources and advanced composites that are sustainable by design.
Under the UK's new EPR scheme, it is anticipated that producers will be responsible for paying approximately £1.7 billion per year in packaging costs throughout the lifecycle of packaging material. However, since packaging waste is a global issue, the UK is not alone in its efforts to reduce waste. The EU has also proposed a new target to make all packaging fully recyclable by 2030 and reduce packaging waste by 15%. With the UK now pushing ahead with reporting regulations, businesses will need to have a system in place to collect and record data on packaging. However, in the not-too-distant future, they will also need to review their approach to waste management and consider moving towards more sustainable practices.
Our international team looks at 2023 developments across the EU and the UK.
1 of 6 Insights
Louise Popple, Elena Glengarry and Roland Mallinson look at the potential impact of the EU's proposed packaging legislation on 3D shape trade mark rights.
3 of 6 Insights
Maarten Rijks and Lucas de Groot look at progress on the EC's draft Repair Directive, and at its intersection with trade mark law.
4 of 6 Insights
Benedikt Rohrssen and Ulrich Spiegel look at incoming toy safety requirements.
5 of 6 Insights
Christian Frank, Julia Freifrau von Imhoff and Alexander Schmalenberger look at the EU's Data Governance Act and Data Act in the context of digital and connected products.
6 of 6 Insights