We have a plastics and packaging problem - and the industry, not the government, has the answers

21 March 2023

Households across the UK are doing a great job sorting their plastics, tins, paper, and packaging for recycling. This is a long way from where we were a few decades ago.


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But the truth that lies hidden behind the recycle bin is that much of our carefully sorted rubbish isn’t actually being recycled. This is because the UK is a long way behind much of the rest of the world in recycling – it turns out that, over time, we’ve become a laggard, not a leader.

Plastics, metals, paper, and card are all brilliant, versatile materials with countless uses – from keeping food fresh, safe, and affordable, to providing sterile medical equipment or materials for buildings we live in. These materials can be recycled repeatedly. But if they aren’t, they end up polluting our natural environment.

Everyone – Parliament, government, local councils, industry – recognises that we could and should be doing better. Other countries – Canada, Belgium, and France, to name a few – are a long way ahead of us in collecting household waste, sorting, and recycling it, and then turning it back into packaging again.

So, it’s welcome that Defra is now regulating for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – and not before time. The food and drink industry strongly supports EPR which, if done well, will enable packaging to be recycled over and over again.

But instead of drawing on the decades of experience in schemes around the world, Defra is designing a novel EPR scheme of its own. This design is overly costly. Almost uniquely among international schemes, it will be heavily centralised and government run. Its starting cost is £1.7bn a year, and all indications are that these costs will escalate quickly.

Experience from around the world tells us that industry should be made responsible for the collection and recycling of packaging materials. This acts as a powerful incentive to businesses to use less packaging. International best practice also shows that schemes which are run in the private sector to stretching government targets are proven to drive up both recycling rates and the use of recycled materials in everyday products – creating a ‘circular economy’.

Against these, Defra’s highly centralised proposals are troubling. Their scheme won’t attract much-needed investment into the UK’s recycling infrastructure, won’t drive up the use of recycled materials because the system won’t generate enough, and will waste precious public resources when there are few of these to spare.

We need the UK government to implement EPR well, all the more so because of the cost-of-living crisis. But instead of a partnership between industry and government to create a lasting legacy of a recycling system that’s fit for future generations, we have a scheme that fails on too many counts – and not least households, who will end up paying upwards of £1 per week in their shopping bills for EPR, for little tangible benefit.

The food and drink sector stands ready to help government do this properly. So far, they have not wanted to listen to us, even when doing so would help drive down inflation and ease the pressure on households.

Nonetheless, our door remains open. Let us help, Defra. Together we can drive up recycling while driving down prices.

Karen Betts is the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation.

This article originally appeared in the House Magazine.