Plastic waste

The government has been warned the decision to delay the introduction of extended producer responsibility for a year will not be enough to salvage the plans, unless it also carries out a total redesign.

Sources said confirmation that ministers were shelving the flagship environmental policy until at least October 2025 has still left the industry facing £2bn a year in extra costs.

The Grocer revealed earlier this month the controversial proposals were set to be shelved, following months of campaigning by retailers and suppliers who warned the plans to make the industry responsible for the cost of recycling would drive up food prices.

Having previously denied it, this week Defra confirmed the delay – although it was done in farcical circumstances, with the decision first quietly posted on its website on Tuesday, followed by an attempt to remove it so it could be presented by ministers on Friday. Finally Defra officials released the plans on Tuesday night as by then they had been widely picked up.

Sources said the debacle was symptomatic of Defra’s handling of the EPR plans and have told The Grocer they fear it still does not realise the extent to which the plans need to be taken back to the drawing board.

Less than 24 hours after announcing the delay, Defra announced it would be pressing ahead with “engagement” talks with industry stakeholders and local authorities on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, with a message it was “business as normal” in preparing for the implementation.

A source told The Grocer: “If Defra thinks this delay will be enough to salvage the plans it is totally wrong. It needs a complete rethink, rather than just trying to carry on with the message that it’s business as usual.”

A senior supplier source said: “While we welcome the news that Defra has delayed the start of EPR payment, businesses are on the hook for a £2bn annual bill for the packaging they put on the market, and as it currently stands under Defra’s plans, they will get nothing in return – no improvements in the UK’s recycling infrastructure, and no materials back to turn food and drink packaging back into packaging.

“The delay is a welcome recognition that their scheme is not ready to deliver, but now the challenge is to work much more closely with industry to import the best-practice international models which work so well overseas, in markets such as Belgium and Canada.”

Business leaders are calling on the government to “significantly step up” work with local authorities who will collect, sort and process packaging waste.

“To improve the UK’s dire recycling rates, councils need support to invest in consolidated recycling infrastructure, and to ensure they hit ambitious targets and run collections as efficiently as possible,” said the source.

“This is a major change for councils and the industry fears Defra underestimates the scale of the challenge, with some councils in England currently achieving very low recycling rates of 30%.

“DIsappointingly, Defra’s statement does not even mention the critical role local authorities will have to play, and they have still not published their plans for consistent collections.

“What’s clear is that this shouldn’t involve seven separate bins outside people’s houses. Government needs to set out workable plans that win the confidence of councils, industry and the public – and we’re prepared to work closely with them to do so, as long as they fulfil their side of the bargain and drive improvements in local authorities.”

Defra was told it now needs a “laser-focus” on councils to ensure they can make the necessary improvements “before the industry starts paying fees”.

“This would add to food prices from the moment bills land on CFOs’ desks,” said the source.

Among the changes industry is calling for are new measures to ringfence funding to stimulate investment in the recycling system, with all funds generated by EPR be spent on the operation and investment in the UK recycling system.

Businesses are also calling for an administrator to run the scheme across the UK with “minimal government involvement “and “maximum engagement and leadership from industry”.

Meanwhile, the delays to EPR pose more questions over the future of the government’s plans for a deposit return scheme (DRS), which had already been put back until October 2025.

The Grocer has previously revealed supermarkets are considering calling for DRS to be scrapped altogether so the UK can concentrate on the successful implementation of EPR.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We’re determined to transform the way we collect, recycle and reuse our waste materials so we eliminate all avoidable waste by 2050 in a way that works for households and consumers.

“We are also listening to industry and ensuring our work to tackle inflation and drive up recycling go hand in hand, to make sure our reforms will be a success.”