Producer responsibility: who should take a lead on waste? | Environment Report 2012

In 2014 an updated EU directive on packaging waste comes into effect, covering the thorny issue of producer responsibility. Philip Chadwick finds a growing feeling that the spotlight should fall on the UK’s consumers

Producer responsibility web

In 1996, European Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard wanted the manufacturers of products to realise that waste management was their problem as much as anyone else’s. “We cannot come to terms with the ever-growing amounts of waste in a rational way, unless concerns for waste minimisation and waste recovery are built into the product from the start,” she said.

And so the concept of producer responsibility was born – a subject that’s on the packaging industry’s radar and provokes much debate. After all, should the manufacturers, or producers, take the lion’s share of the responsibility? Or is it now the turn of consumers to step up – and if it is then should the Government interfere?

So what is producer responsibility? According to Incpen, it’s a policy concept designed to extend manufacturer’s responsibility beyond the sale and use of their products to include disposal at the end of life. It’s about designing packaging with its eventual disposal in mind and requires the producers to take some financial responsibility for the management and treatment of packaging waste. The concept can be traced back before the words of the EU Commissioner. In 1994, a directive from Brussels was created – the European Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. The term ‘producer responsibility’ was not used but remains law today.

“The discussion back then was more about the original definition that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had put together,” explains Jane Bickerstaffe, director at Incpen. The OECD called it Extended Producer Responsibility but the idea was pretty much the same – producers needed to accept their responsibility when designing products to minimise “life cycle impacts”.

Fast forward to today and the 1994 directive is now ripe for change. In 2014, a new EU Packaging Directive is set to come into force and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been gauging views for a consultation document that is set to roll out at the end of this year. Once published, there will be the opportunity to respond before Defra submits its recommendations to the EU. Bob Lisney, chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP), attended one of Defra’s workshops back in April, designed to discuss ways of improving the producer responsibility system.

“It was a really useful brainstorming workshop,” explains Lisney, who attended with around 30 other delegates. “The aim is not change the packaging targets or responsibilities but it may improve the process. For example, if you are a company that produces batteries, there currently needs to be three to four accreditations. It needs to be simplified.”

Lisney was impressed with Defra and believes that the department is onside when it comes to reducing the burden on industry. “We have definitely been listened to by Defra,” he says. “I have been impressed with the openness of the Defra team and they have a really good grasp of the issues in packaging.”

But while Defra is keen to tweak and simplify the producer responsibility system, there are others who want an overhaul. In the summer, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) published a report that called for a radical revamp. Titled Driving Resource Efficiency for a Competitive Britain. It called for better producer responsibility policies that change the nature of products.

Lightweighting claim

The report claims that enforcement of the law has been handed to “often under-resourced local trading standards officers”. Perhaps more controversially, it argues that the lightweighting of packaging hasn’t had the desired effect – if anything, lighter packs have made packaging “more difficult and less economic to recycle”.Adrian Wilkes, chairman of the EIC, added: “There can be no doubt that the benefits of resource efficiency are huge, yet the Government is failing to take significant co-ordinated action. This is undermining policies aimed at tackling key environmental challenges such as climate change, while damaging the UK’s international competitiveness in a world facing rising prices for all raw materials.”

The charge that lightweighting hasn’t entirely worked is rebuffed by Bob McLellan, president of Citpa, the umbrella organisation for European associations of the paper and board converting industry.

“I find it interesting that they are pointing the finger – it’s not a balanced debate,” he argues. “It’s odd that the EIC is claiming that there is poor implementation. The lightweighting of packaging has been very powerful and is driven by cost and intelligent design. It can be gruelling but no packaging is made for the sake of itself.”

McLellan notes that problems occur at the waste collection point and that there is often no understanding of the product being collected. Local government’s aren’t getting value from waste collection firms and there is very little concern about how that waste will be recycled and reused in the material chain.

“The EIC is saying the problem is that there are fewer resources for local Government,” he adds. “But the producers bear the costs and that is unbalanced. There are enough costs for manufacturers.”

And then there’s the problem with Packaging Recovery Note system (PRN) and PERNs. The British Plastics Federation highlights that it is financially advantageous to exporters of waste and doesn’t help the UK recycler. Coca-Cola Enterprises, among others, has also urged a rethink and wants PRN revenue to fund recycling communication programmes for households.

But is there a part of the chain that has been overlooked when it comes to responsibility – the consumer? The concept of ‘consumer responsibility’ has plenty of supporters.

“Everything is driven by consumer demand and local authorities talk about producers paying more,” explains Dick Searle, chief executive at the Packaging Federation. “But while they can make producers pay more so should consumers – they need to be responsible as well.”

Incpen’s Bickerstaffe adds: “We talk about shared responsibilities. Take carrier bags – these bags do not litter themselves. There’s been no mention of people taking responsibility for their own actions.”

Consumer responsibility

So is it now time that the Government set its sights on the consumer? While the ACP doesn’t have a position on the concept of consumer responsibility, Lisney does. “It’s not about consumer responsibility but how we live. There are lots of debates outside of the packaging industry about the demand for resources.”

He believes that with the global pressure on resources there will be a sea change and consumers will be slowly required to change their behaviour. But Lisney adds that the legislation isn’t the answer – it’s more likely that they will have to, like producers, stump up the cash to ensure that used packaging is disposed of responsibly. “Producers will engage consumers to use less waste – but you cannot enter into a nannying approach. You need leadership from producers,” explains Lisney.

Citpa’s McLellan adds that the one thing a future producer responsibility model doesn’t need is more legislation. “There has to be minimum legislation or guidelines. But the problem is that there are so many vested interests – I’m not sure how you can reconcile them all.”

In the meantime the packaging industry will read with interest Defra’s recommendations for the EU’s directive. Those that want a radical overhaul of producer responsibility policy are likely to be disappointed but there is a growing sense that manufacturers have paid enough towards disposing of packaging waste – now it’s time for the consumer to step up and show some responsibility.


Legislation lowdown

  • There are two sets of EU rules on producer responsibility: the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulation; and the Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulation.
  • The former law sets design requirements for all packaging. It also requires member states to set up return, collection and recovery systems for packaging waste but does not specify who should fund them.
  • The directive requires EU member states to ensure that packaging is not excessive for the purpose intended and is suitable for recycling, energy recovery or composting.
  • The UK packaging and packaged goods industry contributes around £60m per year to support recycling.
  • The UK requires all businesses in the packaging supply chain, which handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging and have an annual turnover of more than £2m, to purchase evidence showing that specified quantities of packaging waste have been delivered for reprocessing on their behalf.
  • Instead of putting all the responsibility onto product manufacturers, many believe that the obligation should be divided between packaging raw material suppliers, packaging suppliers, packaged goods manufacturers and importers and distributors. All make a direct financial contribution.

Source: Incpen



  1. We need more EPR that less. Manufacturers are producing products that are hard to recycle or give the consumer the sense that it is worthless so the consumers throw it away. What incentive is there for manufacturers to not produce irresponsible packaging? They focus solely on the manufacturing side of their products, what makes it the more presentable, what is the cheapest method to use, but no consideration is given to how is the product going to be disposed of once it has served its short life? Why are manufacturers allows to make products that have life times of 100’s of years for a product that has a working life of weeks at best.
    We need to think of the whole picture, manufacturers and consumers are not independent entities. They are linked by the products. We can think of manufacturers owning the products and the consumers are only borrowing them. After the consumer has finished with them they need to be returned to the manufacturer. It is not local councils responsibly to dispose of waste packaging at the rate payers expense. Plus dispose it to where? Why do we have to let our landfills get filled up with plastic packaging that manufacturers should be recycling? Why do they get off the responsibility of having to deal with the problem their products are making?
    There has been over the last many decades a concerted effort by industry collectively to not let the issue of their waste be known as a problem. It was all quietly carted off and dumped in landfills and the public thought there was nothing wrong. But those times are changing. Media portrayals of scarcity of resources and landfill space are driving a consumer awareness of there actually is a problem and changes have to be made. Plastic is not the wonderful product industry has been telling us it is these last 50 years. It has some severe problems in that it is cheap but lasts virtually forever as far as a human life time is considered. It suits a manufacturer wanting to make cheap products but is extremely damaging to our natural world. Manufacturers have been using the same models all this time and are reluctant to change what has worked all through those times. But change they must and the sooner the better for our recovery of resources, our national security, the attractiveness of our environment, and the health of our environment (and by association us as we live in the environment).
    So how do we get consumers to return the packaging. Consumers are highly driven by cost first then education second. A deposit scheme works very efficiently for well discrete items like plastic bottles. Manufacturers ought to be actively participating in these schemes. Manufacturers ought to be coerced into wanting to use recovered plastic rather than simply using new virgin plastic for their production. One way to do this put a tax on the use of virgin plastic material but no ton the use of recycled material. This would drive the use of recycled plastic. It would also create a huge number of jobs as a fully efficient recycling system was put in place.
    However would we put a deposit scheme on a candy wrapper, on a straw, on a plastic bag? Probably n0t manageable. How then do we get a plastic candy wrapper to be recycled and not dumped into the trash bin? How can we make the consumer responsible for their actions just like we need to make manufacturers responsible for theirs? We need education programs funded by both the owners of the product, i.e. the manufacturers and the users of the product i.e. the consumer, paid for by the government (which is consumers via tax).
    There are some items that are just not necessary to be made from plastic. ‘Cheap to produce’ is not a good enough reason to make some products. It worked in the 80s but we are smarter now. The total cost (manufacture and disposal) has to be considered. Why do we have plastic straws when paper straws will serve the same job in almost all applications? Why do grocery stores give out ‘free’ plastic bags when consumers need to be using reusable ones? If these items were charged for we would see a drastic reduction in their use by consumers. There are many examples o f this in different countries where this has been implemented. The manufacturers will fight this as they want to maintain sales over anything else, but to maintain this ever getting smaller planet we have to make some changes away from what was done in the past (an unsustainable way of operating) to a newer way to run an economy that is sustainable for both manufacturers and consumers.

  2. As someone who works in the packaging sector the onus must fall on the local authorities to collect all mixed recyclable packaging and not cherry pick as many appear to be doing at the moment. My own local authority refuses to collect rPET or PP/r-PP food packaging. It will collect plastic milk bottles and has been doing for a number of years.With most packaging manufacturers now producing packaging with at least 85% recyclate blend there is simply no excuse for local authorities not to collect packaging from the doorstep. Most of today’s packaging is recyclable.

    Manufacturers find it hard enough to source good quality recyclable material without local authorities putting vast amounts of plastic packaging into landfill. And yes, the consumer needs to be educated into understanding that that the plastic packaging they have is a precious resource that should not be placed in the dustbin. They should collectively challenge their local authority if found wanting. Retailers and manufacturers need a joint action, jointly funded, to educate the end user using the packaging as a marketing conduit for that education.

    Our Waste Partnership scheme recently attached a note to the recycle boxes exhorting us to ‘Slim your bin…’ yet they continue to refuse to collect plastic food packaging, trays and punnets!
    We need to follow the Dutch example – their ‘Plastic Hero’ campaign has resulted in some 70% of packaging now being recycled.
    Packaging is the key to scaling the food mountain – with more than 5m tonnes of edible food being thrown away each year packaging plays an integral part in reducing that mountain – its value as a crucial recyclate resource should not be taken lightly.