The world of waste and recycling policy - looking forward, looking back

Valpak Policy Advisor, Henry Smith summarises 2023 waste and recycling policy developments and outlines how industry and producers can prepare for what's to come.

2023 proved a tumultuous year in the world of waste and recycling policy. But it was far from a wasted year with a whole cascade of developments affecting almost everyone in the value chain. 2024 has only just begun, but already we can see signs of equal, if not greater, change on the horizon.


How 2023 went

Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging

The industry entered 2023 with the expectation that it would be the first-year businesses would be required to report packaging data under new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, and new packaging waste management fees, derived from this data, would be a little over 18 months away.

What transpired was somewhat unprecedented. Reporting requirements were passed into law in March, only taking effect across three-quarters of the UK’s nations initially. Within six months they had to be amended and then placed in an unforeseen period of flux when regulators announced they would not be enforcing non-compliance with the reporting requirements until the middle of 2024. Those laws contained little on financial obligations, which by July were deferred until at least October 2025. This meant EPR joined the ill-fated Scottish Deposit Return Scheme; itself given marching orders by the Internal Market Act just weeks prior. Both were soon followed by the re-branded Consistent Collections, now Simpler Recycling, which was pushed back to April 2026 alongside a government promise to not expose consumers to a supposed seven-bin nightmare. Then as the year drew to a close, further data reporting requirements for small businesses previously to be brought in by EPR were put on ice for a further twelve months.

Undoubtedly a challenge to keep track of for even the keenest member of the waste management community. However, delay does not spell disaster, and since these announcements a radical overhaul in the approach taken by Government to engage with industry has given rise to hope of positive outcomes on the horizon.

WEEE and waste batteries initiatives

Away from packaging, 2023 was also supposed to see the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and batteries EPR initiatives kicked off, and whilst we did see some encouraging signs that they would be consulted on, for batteries at least it wasn’t to be, and the much-anticipated WEEE EPR consultation just squeaked in before the new year.

The WEEE reforms being consulted on promise to radically increase the responsibilities of producers and distributors of EEE once their goods reach end-of-life, with a key emphasis on easing how consumers can have their items disposed of responsibly and affordably. An accompanying call for evidence covers radical proposals relating to reuse measures, eco-design principles, and a revised targets system. Valpak WEEE members receive WEEE EPR Update mailings, so join our scheme to stay up to date.

Where 2024 might go

Scheme administrator for packaging

The WEEE consultation only got a brief moment in the headlines before there came the welcome news that Dr. Margaret Bates will be head of the scheme administrator for packaging. Margaret has the pivotal role of building the scheme administrator from the ground up, balancing the needs of all stakeholders in the 20 months until the first EPR payments are due to be made by producers, and reimbursements made to local authorities. Appointments have also been made to the Scheme Administrator Interim Steering Groups, a 24-person panel that will play a key role in getting the Scheme Administrator operational and fit for purpose.

Amendments to EPR data reporting

But this was not all Defra had to offer the packaging reforms, as soon after further amendments to the EPR data reporting regulations were published. These alterations, which do not apply to data submissions being made across the first quarter of 2024, should see some loopholes closed and obligations that are currently missed, or wrongly ascribed, properly allocated. Valpak’s Policy team was particularly pleased to have seen their engagement with Defra on re-defining ‘non-household’ packaging convert into altered laws which enable more appropriate cost allocation.

Deposit Return Scheme and Simpler Recycling 

Looking further across 2024, the final date for the roll-out of a UK-wide Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is likely to be pencilled into legislation. Work to operationalise a deposit management organisation is also expected. Separately, we should also see waste contractors starting to transition towards the new requirements for business waste collections in Wales from April, and preparations for Simpler Recycling in England which will affect business waste collections in 2025.

Extended Producer Responsibility for batteries

Away from packaging, we can also hope to see the batteries EPR consultation launched at some point in 2024. Defra communications simply state that it will be released as soon as feasible.

Naturally though, many of these changes, particularly those in the policy landscape, are likely to be affected by Rishi Sunak’s comments that his working assumption is to call a General Election in the second half of 2024. Who knows how policies might change in the run-up to, and aftermath of the country going to the polls. In the absence of certainty, it must be all hands on deck at Defra to ensure legislation reaches Parliament prior to purdah.

How industry can be prepared

One of the biggest positives coming out of 2023 was the sense of industry collaboration. Many attendees of the EPR Scheme Administrator, eco-modulation, and Sprint sessions reported that there is now a much greater feeling of solidarity across the value chain, and with government. If this can be preserved and built on in 2024 then all of those affected by the packaging reforms will be better placed to manage this year of transition. It will also beat a path for those to be affected by the WEEE and batteries reforms to have a smoother transition than the packaging sector experienced before now. Valpak will continue to play its part, keeping members and associates informed on the latest developments and providing insights and inputs where most needed, and businesses should continue to stay engaged.