The government is set to introduce measures to further reduce the circulation of single-use plastics and encourage the use of recycled plastic. The measures are expected to influence all aspects of the retail supply chain and have a particular impact on the food and drink sector.

Why does it matter?

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, it is likely that retailers that don’t comply with legislative changes will find consumers are increasingly voting with their feet as environmental factors become a more defining feature of where they spend their money. Though it may be more costly for retailers to comply in the short term, there may be possible sanctions for non-compliance and we expect more stringent measures and/or monitoring to be introduced over time – so retailers may wish to get ahead now to the extent that they are not doing so already.

Single-use plastic ban fines

The sale of single-use plastic such as straws and drink stirrers to consumers has been banned in England since 1 October 2020. Surplus single-use plastic products purchased before 1 October 2020 can be sold until 1 April 2021 and drinks products with single-use plastic straws attached to the packaging can be sold until 3 July 2021. Any sales made after these dates risk local authority fines. Whilst catering establishments can continue to provide single-use plastic straws at the request of customers, these cannot be offered to customers or stored in customer view.

Single-use carrier bag charge extended  

Following a reported 95% reduction in the sales of plastic bags in major supermarkets after the introduction of the plastic carrier bag charge in 2015, the government has announced that from April 2021, the charge will be extended to all retailers and increase to 10p.

Although yet to announce what specific or new enforceability measures will be put in place to police the increased charge, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has stated that it will take into account suggestions made at the consultation stage. These suggestions varied from self-regulation (as retailers could stand to gain from the increased price), to an auditing regulatory authority.

Plastic packaging tax

There is now an economic incentive for businesses to use recycled packaging materials as plastic packaging produced in or imported into the UK, containing less than 30% recycled plastic, will be taxed from April 2022. Draft legislation has now been published for technical consultation (and also see the draft explanatory note) setting out who it is proposed will be liable to pay the tax and will need to register with HMRC, how the tax will be collected, recovered and enforced and how the tax will be relieved on exports. Further information may be found in the following: the government’s latest Policy Paper (from November 2020) and: Plastic Packaging Tax: policy design consultation and summary of responses.

Deposit Return Scheme (DRS)

As part of the government’s Resource and Waste strategy, last year DEFRA launched a consultation on the introduction of a DRS in England. Effectively generating a financial motivation for recycling, the scheme would require consumers to pay a deposit on drinks containers which would be returned to them once their empty container is disposed of at a collection point. Whilst the DRS was initially expected to be implemented in 2023, implementation has now been pushed back to 2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What action should you consider?

  1. Though the carrier bag charge is mandatory, how retailers use the proceeds is voluntary – according to retail commentators, nearly all use the funds to support good causes, resulting in an estimated £58m donated to charities in 2017-18 alone (Source: Better Retailing). As a retailer, if you continue to offer plastic carrier bags, consider how additional proceeds from the 10p charge may be leveraged this year (eg for different good causes). Alternatively, consider the non-plastic options available; we have seen some retailers move to bagless options, for example.
  2. Consider how the PPT might affect you, now the draft legislation is published, and watch out for government announcements for final details on the PPT.
  3. With the DRS still in its early stages, affected retailers may wish to monitor this development to understand the legal framework and possible effects on operations, such as who will be responsible for DRS operational costs. Packaging producers will likely be seeking to ensure that they are not unfairly expected to meet the requirements of the DRS as well as future packaging regulations.
  4. Finally, at some stage, in-store protective plastic and screens will become surplus to requirements as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted – are there sustainable ways that this plastic can be reused or disposed of?