OPINION: Robbie Staniforth, policy manager at Ecosurety, responds the recent call for a packaging product directive.
As Gev Eduljee recently reflected, The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations have been rather low-profile in the packaging producer responsibility reform debate to date (see letsrecycle.com story). As we get closer to the prize of legislative change for environmental benefit, he rightly points out that it should be more openly discussed.
Undoubtedly, it would have been helpful if the National Audit Office (NAO) had spent more time assessing the essential requirements in addition to the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations. But to be frank, industry and government don’t need the NAO to tell us that it is terrible legislation, terribly enforced.
When commentators have used the term “PRN reform” over the last year, it’s best not to have taken it too literally. Usually the phrase is shorthand for “packaging legislation reform”, i.e. including both regulations. Sometimes this is through laziness, other times through ignorance. What is important is to ensure that Defra address all the issues in the same round of legislative change. One would be inclined to believe that they won’t be so naive as to make wholesales changes to the PRN system without considering complementary legislation. Even Michael Gove has alluded to Defra looking across the legislative landscape with their “intent to reform producer responsibility systems (including packaging waste regulations) to incentivise producers to take greater responsibility”.
Having been invited to talk on the future of extended producer responsibility (EPR) at an event at Portcullis House recently, the issue of how best to tackle design requirements was high on the panel’s and audience’s agenda. There seems to be agreement that legislation is needed to meaningfully influence design choices leading to greater reuse and recycling. However, the specific legislative means to get to this end, is where views differ. Put simply, should design requirements be specifically cited in EPR regulations, or should there be separate, hopefully complementary, “design” legislation. While gut-reaction suggests this is mere semantics, the phrase “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” springs to mind.
Over the last two decades, the impact of the essential requirements has been negligible. This may be due to a number of reasons, such as, the lack of clarity within the law itself, poor general awareness and understanding in the industry, or inadequate enforcement. In the hierarchy of importance for National Trading Standards, one imagines it doesn’t even figure on the priority list. Regardless of where blame is apportioned, clearly the legislative framework has failed to deliver meaningful outcomes, hence the current public outcry. Given this history, Defra must be extremely careful if they decide to pursue this kind of legislation in future. Mr Eduljee’s call for “more robust application” of such legislation is certainly an understatement.
In trying to diagnose where legislation is not delivering the desired behaviour, it is interesting to search the legislation for the PRN system to find that there is no reference what-so-ever to the essential requirements. Perhaps a clear legislative link might well deliver better design outcomes? Mr Eduljee appears to dismiss EPR systems with fee modulation, pointing out that evidence suggested they’ve had very little impact. However, one could also argue that there is equal and equivalent evidence to suggest that “product design legislation” is just as ineffective at delivering the desired results.
“If legislation is adopted for setting fees based on the packaging design characteristics of products placed onto the market, they must be nimble enough to change with rapidly developing technology and not inhibit innovation.”
The truth is that this is a step into the legislative unknown and all options should be considered by Defra. As it stands, there is no conclusive or compelling evidence for how regulations should specifically be drawn up. The devil is in the detail, and until options are presented by Defra, it is difficult to simply back one method over the other.
If legislation is adopted for setting fees based on the packaging design characteristics of products placed onto the market, they must be nimble enough to change with rapidly developing technology and not inhibit innovation. This would mean whomever determines the criteria and level of these fees could potentially have a rather large and important job on their hands.
Recent articles in mainstream media originating from the Local Government Association, NAO and others are almost certain to have damaged public confidence in recycling. Resolving packaging design issues won’t address the entire scope of changes required, but if we get it right, it will surely go a long way towards re-convincing the public of the need to sort their packaging for recycling.