Britain’s major retailers and food manufacturers are increasing their lobbying efforts to postpone significant environmental reforms that will require them to pay for the collection and recycling of household packaging waste from next year.
The proposed “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) scheme, set to launch in April 2024, would require food producers and retailers selling own-brand products to report packaging waste data from January 2023 and pay the full cost of packaging waste disposal from April 2024.
The changes would apply to companies with a turnover of £1m or more, and the funds would be paid to local councils to finance green bin collections.
Industry leaders have used Downing Street crisis talks, following soaring food prices, to caution that the EPR scheme would raise shopping bills further and worsen the cost of living crisis. Supermarket bosses and food manufacturers have reportedly requested ministers to halt the launch of the EPR scheme. Business leaders argue that the scheme would cost at least £1.7bn annually, and the bulk of the cost would be passed on to consumers through higher prices on supermarket shelves.
The government has pledged to introduce such a scheme for years, with Michael Gove as environment secretary first proposing it in 2018. Delays have been attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit draining the government’s
Industry bosses have used Downing Street crisis talks arranged in response to soaring food prices to warn that the plans – due to come into effect in April 2024 – would drive up shopping bills further amid the cost of living crisis.
In meetings summoned by Rishi Sunak as food prices rise at the fastest annual rate since the 1970s in the past month, supermarket bosses and food manufacturers are understood to have asked ministers to halt the launch of the “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) scheme.
Under the plans, food producers and retailers that sell own-brand products will be obliged to report packaging waste data from January next year and pay the full cost of packaging waste disposal from April. The changes apply to companies with turnover of £1m or more, and the money would be paid to local councils to help fund green bin collections.
Business leaders argue the scheme will cost at least £1.7bn a year, saying the bulk of the cost would be passed on to consumers through higher prices on the supermarket shelves.
The government has promised such a scheme for years, with Michael Gove as environment secretary first putting it forward in 2018. However, progress has been slow, with delays blamed on the Covid pandemic, Brexit draining the government’s capacity to legislate, and political turmoil leading to a constantly shifting cast of ministerial appointments.
Karen Betts, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “They should consider delaying the EPR to take that cost out of pricing while inflation remains very high. It would seem to us to be a sensible thing to do.
“We’re seeing the government rushing through legislation so they’re not accused of backsliding on environmental commitments. But the result is you have a very muddled, confused scheme which we think won’t work. Not only is it going to cost consumers more, but because it’s not ready it’s even worse.”
The British Retail Consortium has also pushed for the government to “urgently rethink” the recycling reforms. It comes after ministers floated the idea of voluntary price caps for basic food items at the Downing Street talks, prompting a furious response from business bosses and Conservative backbenchers.
Campaigners warned delays would have devastating consequences for the environment, while council leaders said failure to act would mean council tax payers continue to shoulder all recycling costs rather than sharing it with corporations. They argue the scheme will cost less than suggested by industry lobbyists because it discourages wasteful packaging and promotes recycling.
Cllr Linda Taylor, the environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Currently taxpayers foot the bill for processing the waste, often dealing with excessive packaging and the challenges of material that is difficult to recycle.
“Councils have been planning for the introduction of EPR in 2024 following previous delays and would be disappointed by another delay creating further uncertainties related to the waste reforms that risk delaying investment.”
Allison Ogden-Newton, the chief executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said: “It’s all very well saying ‘cost of living, and it’s a difficult time to reintroduce EPR’, but at the moment taxpayers are paying for the cost of retrieval for recycling, and the rest is either going to litter or landfill – which is devastating the environment.
“We think it’s overdue and will make a big impact in helping us to clear up.”
However, industry leaders said gaping holes still remained in the government plan almost half a decade after it was first announced. Ministers are yet to outline how changes to standardise kerbside waste collections of household recycling will be made – two years after a consultation on the matter was first launched.
“It’s a shambles to be honest,” said Dick Searle, the chief executive of the Packaging Federation, an industry trade body. “How on earth can we get to work if we don’t know how the people collecting stuff from households are going to be working?
“We’re all on the same page here [on reducing waste], but it just isn’t fit for purpose and the timetables are completely unrealistic.”
A government spokesperson insisted the EPR would be phased in from 2024. “We have been engagingly closely with manufacturers, retailers, and packaging companies on the final design of the scheme and on delivery plans. We will continue to work with these vital groups to help shape future policy.”