Delay 'until 2028'

Slater’s DRS pleas ‘thwarted by trade and election’

Lorna Slater
Lorna Slater’s calls for progress on the DRS are up against the election timetable and trade resistance

Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater’s attempt to revive the deposit return scheme is facing continued resistance from the packaging trade as well as uncertainty because of the general election.

Ms Slater has written to the UK Environment Secretary Stephen Barclay to express concern at the lack of progress after he confirmed reports in recent weeks that a scheme is unlikely to be introduced until 2027.

Some in the trade have been saying for weeks that it could be 2028 before any scheme is ready and, in any case, both dates would mean a new government would have to commit to the process. Labour has yet to clarify its position.

Daily Business reported earlier this month, that Julian Hunt, vice-president of Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, had called for ministers to introduce legislation for a UK scheme before the general election.

He said: “It’s really time that the four governments [of the UK] come together and start to sort this out, irrespective of where we are in the electoral process.”

He told a trade conference that the Republic of Ireland had become the 43rd country to launch a DRS in February this year.

It is understood that the retail sector has lobbied the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to delay any scheme until 2028.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, the industry body, said: “To needlessly rush into a DRS would likely see consumers paying the price of the £1.8 billion-a-year scheme through higher prices, while failing to deliver upon the promise of improved recycling.

“Government needs to work with retailers and manufacturers to ensure the public gets a world-class recycling system that collects and processes as much recyclable material as possible.”

Further complications arise from the extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, designed for producers to pay the full net costs of managing and recycling packaging waste arising from products they sell, which is due to start in October 2025.

There is also resistance from within the packaging industry, not only because of the need to properly put the infrastructure in place, but because unlike other countries that have introduced a DRS the UK already has well-established recycling schemes.

Deep Sagar, chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging, told waste management trade publication MRW earlier this month: “If governments are thinking of delaying the DRS, I would support it.

Stephen Barclay
Steve Barclay confirmed a delay to the DRS

“My committee had advised that a DRS appeared very expensive and disruptive to the excellent local authority-led waste collection system we have. It would be much better to test a DRS in a small area first to understand its real costs and benefits.”

Mr Sagar added that extended producer responsibility would be “a much better policy [for] litter reduction and increased waste collection”.

Environmental Services Association recycling policy adviser Patrick Brighty also told MRW: “Irrespective of recent reports of a delay to the DRS timetable, implementing [it] by October 2025 is increasingly challenging owing to a lack of policy progress.

“Before the DRS can be rolled out, a statutory instrument must be laid in Parliament to confirm the scope and appointment of a deposit management organisation (DMO), and to ascertain the final form of the DRS – for example whether it relies on a return-to-retail model or a ‘full-fat’ scheme with more complex infrastructure requirements.”

Mr Brighty said that once a DMO was in place, it would need to establish producer fees and payments, which will require extensive consultation, and tender for service providers for logistics, sorting, counting and reprocessing. 

“Delivering this work by October 2025 would be a tall order if the DMO was appointed tomorrow, so any further hold-up makes delivery against this target increasingly unlikely,” he said.

Compensation claims likely

Scotland’s attempt to go-it-alone were thwarted by the UK government ordering it be scrapped until a UK-wide scheme is introduced. It left drinks producers and retailers with a large bill for setting up infrastructure and employing staff that were no longer required.

As both governments blamed each other for the collapse of the scheme, Circularity Scotland, which was set up to administer it, was liquidated and compensation claims are still be worked on, with speculation that the total claim will run into tens of millions of pounds. Companies such as waste management firm Biffa and Irn-Bru maker AG Barr, which was due to pay a ‘producer fee’, invested considerable sums preparing for the scheme.

Biffa, which was contracted to collect the recycled containers, invested £80 million on infrastructure, including opening processing centres in Motherwell, Aberdeen, Thurso, Inverness, Dundee and Grangemouth to count, sort and bale the plastic, glass and aluminium drinks containers collected through the scheme.

Work had begun on most of these sites and several counting machines were delivered. The company was in the process of hiring an additional 500 people to work on the DRS.

Compensation and potential legal claims have been talked about since the scheme collapsed, but arguments over who was to blame are likely to make it a long process.

In her letter to Mr Barclay, Ms Slater says the UK government “committed to develop and consult on a DRS in England for metal, plastic and glass drinks containers in 2018, a commitment also set out in your 2019 manifesto.

“We are now five years on from that commitment, which has been significantly weakened following your Government’s decision to remove glass from the scheme in 2023. It is clear now that it will be further delayed.”

recycling bin
Packaging leaders say the UK already has effective recycling schemes

Ms Slater blamed the UK government for holding up introduction of a DRS and for intervening in devolved policy areas. “As you know, Scotland would now have an operational DRS if the UK Government had not prevented it from moving forward as planned,” she wrote.

“This would have provided a launchpad for wider DRS across the UK meaning we would all be experiencing the environmental and economic benefits much sooner.”

She said the UK Government had “created enormous uncertainty for businesses on what a scheme across the UK would look like and on how it would be delivered, and severely undermined confidence.

“Even though the main premise for undermining Scotland’s scheme was the need for a UK-wide approach, almost one year on, there is no further clarity on the details of your Regulations. We, the other devolved governments, and businesses now find ourselves facing even greater uncertainty as a result of these latest comments.”

DRS collection point at Aldi - deposit return
Scotland was left with disused collection centres at the DRS collapsed (pic: Terry Murden)

She said it was “clear from your [Mr Barclay’s] comments” that the UK Government would not hesitate to continue to “undermine, override and re-write devolved legislation, disregarding four-nation agreements and good-faith engagement in Common Frameworks to so do.”

Ms Slater said despite the “continued shifting of goal posts and delays by the UK Government”, officials across the four nations have been working closely since May last year to design and agree interoperable schemes.

“We have said from day one that we we’re committed to all schemes across the UK to work together. We designed our scheme in good faith so it would be interoperable with the proposals agreed and consulted upon by all UK nations.”

In response to the speculation in early March, a Defra spokesperson said: “We are pushing ahead with our programme of reforms to reduce waste and improve our use of resources, and remain committed to our goal of eliminating avoidable waste by 2050.

“It is essential that we work closely with industry to make sure our reforms will be a success, and we will continue to engage with businesses closely as we proceed with introducing the DRS.”

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