DRS machine Sainsbury's

The government’s deposit return scheme (DRS) and other key flagship waste reforms are at serious risk of failing to tackle the plastic crisis due to lack of planning and confusion amongst businesses, MPs have warned.

A report by the Public Account Committee (PAC) today said businesses were unable to prepare for changes required by the introduction of DRS as well as extended producer responsibility (EPR), with both projects suffering from major confusion in the industry and a lack of clarity from Defra about how they will proceed.

“Uncertainty is stopping businesses and local authorities from preparing for the required changes,” found the report.

It said there was also a “real risk of insufficient facilities to deal with increased volumes of recycling due to reforms, meaning more plastic will be sent to landfill than before”.

The report is a further blow to confidence in the government’s flagship schemes following a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in June, which accused Defra of having “no effective long-term plans to reduce waste that contributes to climate change”.

With speculation the October 2025 start date for DRS will be delayed amid supermarket bosses warning of the cost of the project, PAC poured doubt on the evidence that DRS would be achieved.

Like the NAO report in the summer, it criticised Defra for relying on “small-scale trials” for evidence DRS would tackle litter and boost local authority recycling levels.

Defra has ruled out launching pilots of DRS despite growing calls from critics who claim there is insufficient proof to launch a full-scale rollout.

“The department is basing the design of DRS on small trials and international experience, but a lack of like-for-like comparators may make it difficult to get the UK’s scheme right,” the committee said.

“The impact assessment for the scheme showed more than 90% of the benefits of the scheme are based on an estimate of the value to society of reducing litter, and this is inherently difficult to determine.

DRS machines Spar_Market_Crosshouse_024

DRS machines at Spar Market Crosshouse

“The department does not plan to conduct a pilot of the deposit return scheme due to the practical challenges of setting it up. It plans to use the information it has on small trials combined with looking at the experiences of other countries who have implemented similar schemes.

“However, the department accepts the international comparators are not directly comparable to the UK, for example some countries do not have kerbside collections which recycle some of the same waste.”

Today’s report also warns businesses face confusion over EPR, despite the government’s decision to delay the rollout from next year until 2025 at the earliest.

“Changing how we deal with waste is crucial to save the environment from further damage and meet the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050,” said PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier.

“Without a clearly communicated vision from government on how these crucial reforms will actually work in practice, it’s unlikely these targets are reachable.

“Our inquiry has found the reforms were beset with problems from the initial set-up, with the department lacking a clear plan on how to make their ambitions to reduce the environmental and economic costs of municipal waste feasible.

“Delays to the programme mean businesses and consumers can’t prepare for the upcoming changes, which could mean even more plastic is sent to landfill in the long term. With businesses and local authorities crying out for information, the government needs to provide certainty as soon as possible to make sure the necessary investments and procurement can take place.”

Jim Bligh, director of corporate affairs and packaging at the FDF, said: “The food and drink manufacturing industry welcomes this report that highlights the need for clarity from government on the timelines and detail of the collection and packaging reforms.

“Over the last two years, we’ve raised our concerns directly that this proposed scheme doesn’t replicate best practice when compared globally and is more closely aligned to tax-raising schemes in countries like Russia and Hungary.

“Defra must take on board the recommendations of the committee to work closely with all stakeholders to design a world-leading scheme that delivers a true circular economy, which means that recycled food packaging is used again for the same purpose and not sent to landfill or incinerated.”