The grocery sector, and particularly supermarkets, will have to consider how their value chains can become more sustainable when the strategy is published in November

The shocking footage of marine litter in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II has had a major impact on the attitudes of consumers, politicians and businesses. The programme was timely because it coincided with the development of a new 25-year strategy for resources and waste in the UK and the government’s adoption of the EU’s ‘Circular Economy Package’ (CE). 

The strategy being put together by Defra will embrace CE principles. It is not due to be published until November, but ministers have signposted major changes ahead. The grocery sector, and particularly supermarkets, will be among those that will have to consider how their value chains can become more sustainable.

It is clear that packaging will be a major focus for Defra, especially concerning who pays what for the recovery of packaging used in households and by consumers ‘on the go’. Currently, it is estimated that local authorities cover 90% of collection costs through council tax. But the CE directives set out a requirement for ‘total cost recovery’ whereby producers of waste (ie the manufacturers) pick up all such costs. Member states can opt to impose a figure as low as 80% cost recovery, but it is understood that 90%-95% will be sought in the UK.

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The expectation is not that this reform will see new costs passed on to consumers. Instead, the value chain will be incentivised to alter product design and production processes, thereby benefiting from the return of quality secondary materials.

One method would be for producers to pay a deposit covering the full costs associated with managing the tonnage of product they place upon the market at the end of its life. This deposit fee might be lower for easily recycled products and higher for those without a functioning recycling system. Those who deliver the intended recycling outcomes would receive their deposit back on the percentage of their material actually recycled, meaning those with more sustainable products would contribute less (and therefore pass on less cost to the consumer) than those with a greater negative environmental impact.

Coupled with other measures driving greater recyclability and the use of more recycled materials, it is anticipated the strategy will evolve far more sustainable approaches under the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR).

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One method that may arise under EPR, and which will affect retailers significantly, is the deposit return scheme. Defra wants a DRS in England for single-use drinks containers (whether plastic, glass or metal), subject to consultation, and we at Suez support this, though we believe it should only apply to container sizes used ‘on the go’ so as not to undermine functioning household collection systems.

DRS was a major talking point at more than 20 workshops Suez held throughout the summer with representatives of local authorities, brands, manufacturers and retailers – including the supermarkets. The important feedback was that such schemes have to be well-designed and part of the wider sustainability agenda.

Defra’s consultations on its strategy, running into 2019, are a great opportunity for the grocery sector to become even more engaged about what happens to products from manufacture through to the retail process and on to their consumption and wastage. But our recent workshops have proven that no sector will be able to deliver a more sustainable economy for the UK in isolation, which is why it is imperative that all actors within the value chain come together to find a systemic solution to this critical challenge.

David Palmer-Jones is CEO of Suez recycling and recovery UK