In 2019 the UK government committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels by 2050 under the Climate Change Act 1990 – the UK ‘net zero target’. Then in 2021 the UK government published its Net Zero Strategy ‘Build Back Greener’, which set out a plan to decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy to meet the 2050 net zero target.

A significant part of achieving this goal is approaching and reforming the way we deal with plastic, including production and waste. Globally, we produce 400 million tons of plastic per year, a figure set to quadruple by 2050. Producing and disposing of plastic results in huge greenhouse gas emissions and adversely impacts ecosystems, with a particular effect on marine animals that ingest it in the form of microplastics. Combatting plastic waste is crucial to achieve the UK's net zero target and is certainly the driving factor behind the reform of the existing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regime.

The Environment Act 2021 contains a framework for new and enhanced EPR, to be introduced in 2024. This follows a 12-month delay from the initial proposed introduction date of 1 January 2023. EPR places more stringent responsibilities on producers, including:

  • mandatory labelling and annual packaging waste recycling targets for 2030,
  • producer responsibility for costs of household waste, and
  • incentives for use of recyclable packaging.

In addition, all empty packaging and packaged items that are handled and supplied through the UK market must now be recorded. The new framework will apply to all UK organisations with an annual turnover of £1 million or more, who handle and supply packaging in excess of 25 tonnes per calendar year to consumers and to businesses. Exclusions and exemptions will apply, including for charities.

Specific responsibilities under the framework will be introduced over the next two years. These may include:

  • registering with the UK Government,
  • paying a fee to the Environmental Regulator,
  • buying a PRN (Packaging Waste Recycling Note) or PERN (Packaging Waste Export Recycling Note) to confirm that waste has been recycled appropriately, and
  • reporting empty packaging and packaged goods data.

The new framework is undoubtedly a positive step towards achieving a more sustainable, circular economy. Producers will need to be aware of the changes to their obligations, and any deadlines they will now be required to meet.

Going forward, the new EPR rules will act in conjunction with further regulatory developments affecting manufacturers regarding plastic use and regulation, such as:

  • A recently announced ban on a range of polluting single-use plastics in England, set to take effect from October 2023.
  • A binding global treaty by the UN to end plastic pollution by 2040, labelled as ‘the important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord’.