Resource and Waste Policy Update: What is in the pipeline?
George Atkinson, Policy Advisor, provides a policy update - What's in the pipeline for the resources and waste sector.
Resources and waste sector policy got off to a great start in January 2019. Just two months after publication of the “Resources and Waste Strategy” at the end of 2018, Defra published three documents as part of the first round of public consultations concerning UK Packaging System Reform. They detailed Defra’s proposals for a new packaging recycling regime based on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a Deposit Return Scheme for bottles in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and plans to standardise the set of recyclable materials collected at kerbside by local authorities across England, to put an end to the postcode lottery of waste collections.
Simultaneously, the Treasury opened a consultation on its proposals for a ‘world-leading’ Plastics Packaging Tax, to be levied on the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content.
The four consultations closed in May 2019, having garnered hundreds of thousands of responses from across industry, local authorities and the public, with summaries of the responses to each published in July of last year. The timeline was established, the course of action set and the starting gun sounded; however, the jury is out on whether developments are running at the pace required to cross the finish line before spectators have packed up and gone home.
Impact of the December general election
Since then, Parliamentary debates, votes and the small matter of a first December general election in nearly 100 years all added to the quagmire that was Westminster politics in 2019. The Environment Bill, the crucial piece of primary legislation that will pave the way for Ministers to overhaul the resources and waste sector in the name of Extended Producer Responsibility did come to the fore. However, it was introduced to Parliament too late to pass through the process before Parliament’s dissolution to allow the nation to once again go to the polls. Although the Environment Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, the Conservatives opted to not table a carry-over motion for the Bill that would’ve enabled it to resume its course through Parliament in the event of a Tory win; therefore, the Environment Bill was classed as ‘fallen’, awaiting revival to restart its journey in the new Parliamentary session.
EU Exit and the Environment Bill
Heading into 2020, whilst it was certain that Brexit would finally ‘get done’ and the UK would officially leave the European Union on 31 January (though it is worth noting that nothing legally changes until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020) what was less certain was when and in what form the Environment Bill would return.
Early indications from Westminster suggested that the new Agriculture Bill was the ‘new’ Government’s priority and further delay to the reform process looked to be in the offing.
It was to a degree of surprise that the 2020 Environment Bill was announced a little over a week ago, with the promise that it will ‘help deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment to delivering the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’. On the face of it, little has changed, bar powers, that will facilitate a ban on the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, as well as the promise of legally binding targets in four key areas, of which waste and resources efficiency is one.
Ministers are also required to make Parliamentary statements on the impacts of new legislation on existing levels of environmental protection and publish biennial reports on significant developments in environmental protection legislation overseas. Though it passes on including a clearly defined environmental non-regression principle, in addition to leaving question marks over how independent and powerful the new Office for Environmental Protection will be, the strong Conservative majority in the House of Commons means the Environment Bill is likely to pass sooner rather than later.
Whilst original timelines had anticipated it to be in place in time for Ministers to have the powers to introduce a ban the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, currently scheduled for 6 April, Defra expect the Bill to become law before the end of this year, subject to a series of minor amendments as it passes through Parliament.
EPR, DRS and consistent collections
It goes without saying that Westminster’s preoccupation with EU Exit has resulted in the second round of public consultations for the four Packaging System Reform initiatives being pushed back from early 2020, as quoted in Defra’s first EPR consultation document, to some time nearer summer 2020.
To kick start the process, over the next few months, Defra are convening a range of workshops and sounding board sessions with stakeholders to develop and test the proposals and concepts surrounding EPR, DRS and consistent collections initiatives further.
Our Policy Director, Adrian Hawkes, will be attending a number of these sessions, contributing to discussions on behalf of Valpak members. It is hoped that off the back of these sessions a more comprehensive and well-informed set of proposals for waste sector reform will be published towards the back end of quarter three.
Managed competition packaging system
In the meantime, Valpak has been working, with input from other stakeholders, to develop a proposal on how the new EPR-based packaging system may be governed looking ahead. We’re proposing a system that strikes a balance between the two models most strongly favoured by respondents to the first EPR consultation, either a system based upon a centralised monopoly management body or alternatively a system that maintains an element of competition to drive innovation and keep costs to a minimum.
We believe a ‘managed competition’ approach provides a very positive balance for producers, and as such we are hoping to gather the support for our proposal from across the supply chain. Look out for more information on this in the future.
Plastic Packaging Tax
In terms of the Plastic Packaging Tax, with the winter election delaying November’s scheduled Budget, more details on the tax (to be implemented in 2022), along with recycling targets for the remaining two years before the new EPR-based packaging system comes into effect in 2023, are expected on 11 March when Rishi Sunak makes his first major trip to the Despatch Box.
Scottish Deposit Return Scheme
Lastly, a look ahead to what’s to come cannot be complete without an update on Scotland’s attempts to push ahead with establishing its own Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers.
Following the closing of the public consultation for the proposed regulations, the holding of an industry stakeholder evidence session by the Scottish Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, and the publication of the Committee’s recommendations shortly after, we now await the Scottish Government’s summary of responses to the DRS Consultation, as well as updated implementing legislation. We expect an announcement in May on the next steps of the Scottish DRS, as its implementation date, currently pencilled in for 1 April 2021, edges alarmingly closer.
In summary, the all-important Environment Bill is currently passing through Parliament, with discussions surrounding packaging reforms due to pick up again shortly. We expect the imminent Budget to clarify the Treasury’s plans for the Plastic Packaging Tax further, and in the coming months we can also expect greater clarity on Scottish DRS, which is urgently needed ahead of next year.
By the end of 2020, as the UK prepares to legally break away from the EU, greater clarification on the changes that will fundamentally alter the resources and waste sector looking ahead are expected, with an opportunity for all concerned to give feedback on updated proposals expected in Quarter Three.
Supporting our members
Valpak will keep members informed of policy developments that affect them, as well as the wider sector, helping them to navigate this relatively volatile period for policy.
This will sit alongside our efforts to represent our members’ interests at Government level, helping to deliver change that is appropriate, fair and beneficial for both the packaging system and the environment.