Why packaging reforms will continue to dog politicians through this year and beyond

Back in 2018, Michael Gove launched his 25 Year Environment Plan, which outlined a range of waste and packaging reforms with the aim of improving packaging recyclability and driving up collection for recycling rates. But six years on, we’ve seen very little progress, with the government in paralysis over its controversial and highly complex proposals. Effectively, DEFRA is in stalemate.

Delay after delay

Just last week, the UK Government announced a long-awaited delay to their Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), pushing back the nationwide scheme launch to October 2027. The scheme – which involves placing a redeemable deposit on single-use drinks containers, refundable upon their return – was included within the Conservative Party’s 2019 General Election manifesto and has been beset by delay after delay. Despite the difficulties which plagued the roll-out of Scotland’s DRS, all devolved nations have now agreed to the October 2027 deadline. But things are far from finalised – there’s an awful lot of detail yet to iron out, including ongoing concerns surrounding the interoperability of the UK-wide scheme.

Extended Producer Responsibility: Bridging the Gap in Implementation

The DRS is not the only packaging policy facing serious issues, with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) due for implementation in October 2025. But – again – a lack of detail is yet to be announced on key elements, such as fee modulation. Designed to ensure that packaging producers pay for the cost of managing and recycling the packaging they place on the market, the policy is a crucial component of the Government’s commitment to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035. Originally planned to begin in October 2024, EPR was delayed last year, with the Government citing “pressures facing consumers and businesses” and not wanting to increase the costs of a weekly shop. But this was in large part down to disagreement with businesses on the finer details of the scheme, and a narrowing window to deliver on schedule. With the scheme still to be finalised, this presents opportunities for businesses to engage constructively with DEFRA on the scheme design. This is a crucially important regulation that will carry a big cost ticket for many UK businesses, so it’s important to secure that seat at the decision-making table, behind the scenes, where the technical debate is really happening, away from the noise of the election playing out in public.

A Shift in Focus: From Delayed Reforms to Emerging Priorities

Meanwhile, with EPR and DRS delayed until after the General Election and Simpler Recycling proposals now progressing, there’s increasing scope within DEFRA to start to look to other issues, where government bandwidth has previously stymied progress. One such issue is reuse and refill regulations. Burrowed away with within the DRS policy statement on drinks containers was a commitment from the Government to work with industry to support voluntary trials for reuse and refillable drinks containers. Having previously outlined that the Government would seek to introduce compulsory reuse and refillable targets, this nod to reuse in the DRS update suggests that DEFRA plans to take a ‘carrot rather than stick’ approach in the first instance, before potentially introducing tougher measures which could subsequently penalise businesses for a lack of action. This therefore provides businesses with a window of opportunity to get ahead on the reuse and refill issue – providing officials in DEFRA with a solutions-focused approach, taking part in voluntary trials, and forming a firm position on the issue before it rises further up the government to-do list.

Impact on the General Election

But how is this all impacted by the forthcoming General Election? If the polls are to be believed, and as the local election results suggest, an incoming Labour Government will be swept into power with a fresh mandate to push forward with its commitment to create a truly circular economy, tackling these policy areas with a renewed vigour.  Whilst packaging and waste reform is not likely to be front and centre of Labour’s manifesto, the Party’s pledge to ban the use of single-use plastics suggests that it may be willing to take firmer action to improve recycling rates and press for business to reduce waste, as part of its environmental agenda. So it’ll be important to make representations to the Labour EFRA team within the first 100 days, ahead of any policy announcements. Yes, it may feel like things have been stalling with the ongoing waste reform delays – but now isn’t the time to take the foot off the gas. With DEFRA currently working through the regulatory detail, and new issues likely to be put on the map by a new government, it’s important to make representations to ensure these proposals reflect the commercial interest of your business.

To find out more about how Grayling’s specialist FMCG can support your organisation, please contact Dom Lynch: dominic.lynch@grayling.com.