The man behind Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has called for decisive action on introducing it as pressure mounts for Defra to stop missing legal deadlines.
Speaking exclusively to Ecoveritas, renowned Swedish economist and engineer Thomas Lindhquist labelled the UK government’s intended approach to EPR “curious” and stressed the need for progress on the much-delayed environmental policy.
More than four years after the government began consulting on plans to make the industry responsible for the packaging it places on the UK market, there is little sign of movement on EPR – with recent government crisis talks descending into chaos.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) recently criticised Defra's performance on waste minimisation, highlighting that the 25-Year Environment Plan has so far failed to bring about the changes needed, at the pace and scale required, something Lindhquist was keen to reiterate.
“There are undoubtedly elements of stalling to this, especially when you make things complicated and want to solve them in a strictly legislative or society-orientated approach,” said Lindhquist. “It raises the risk of taking a very long time, and there’s still no guarantee that it will work well.”
EPR is due to come into effect in 2024, but prolonged confusion within the waste sector over plans for deposit return schemes, extended producer responsibility and consistent household collections have left many within the waste sector exasperated.
It was recently reported that a ‘Business Readiness Forum’ held to salvage the delayed strategy was dominated by questions about the government’s readiness to introduce it.
Lindhquist, an Associate Professor and Director of Research Programs at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University in Sweden, wrote a ground-breaking report in 1990 suggesting that a producer’s responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products and packaging extended past the point of sale and consumption.
“The UK chose a different approach, and sometimes I was wondering why,” Lindhquist said. “I mean strictly theoretically, it's a kind of intriguing system with competition elements. The problem is, of course, to do it in practice, in a good way, is extremely difficult and may cost a lot of money.
“I have always imagined that some of that would be solved, that you automatise systems and you don't have the same information barriers or access to information.
“I find it politically interesting that you create a law where in some sense, you can say you'll have to collect waste and put it into recycling. But you wouldn't collect from households because that's more expensive.
“The total requirements were not such that you needed much from households, and then the government goes out and says that municipalities must put it into recycling – that’s wonderful for companies and many other actors. I'm kind of curious about those things.”
Despite conceding some elements of EPR have evolved, even departed from the original concept, over time, it continues to make a difference, and Lindhquist would “like to come back and be part of rectifying” some parts of it in the future.
“I'm rather optimistic,” he said. “I did some work on this based on Swedish knowledge and ideas, and I was surprised at how well my thoughts go with various stakeholders. People I knew a bit, people I knew better, and people I have never met, we almost 100% agreed on both what has happened and what you need to do.
“Then I've started to pay more attention when I listen to people from other countries, what is going on in Brussels and some of their governments. That's made me optimistic. We will still do a lot of silly things and pay too much attention to eco modulation and how it works in France and some other countries. But it would maybe open minds to more action and different types of action. Some of the mistakes can be useful.
“So, at a certain point, you need to do things instead of trying to reach full understanding and consensus.”
Ecoveritas’ Chief Strategy Officer, Andrew McCaffery, added: “With required actions under EPR finally underway, outlining how the new regulation will work in practice for UK businesses that must comply with this new legal requirement must become our priority.
“We must move beyond discussing its merits and instead help businesses unpick the intricacies in already challenging times.
“EPR can and should be about creating a circular packaging economy that prioritises source reduction and reuse above recycling. Well-designed EPR is a service charge for the collection, sorting and processing. When you look at other policy solutions, it has proven to be one of the most efficient and effective ways of tackling the problem. It provides the ongoing and sufficient funding scheme we need when designed correctly. It drives the proper environmental outcomes by putting money into the right places. Money that’s raised in the system stays in the system. “