How will Covid-19 affect producer responsibility in 2020?
As the coronavirus outbreak causes huge disruption, Robbie Staniforth, Head of Policy at Ecosurety, explores what this might mean for producer responsibility requirements in the coming year
To borrow from Plato, strange times are these in which we live. While organisations and individuals are assessing a multitude of issues that result from coronavirus Covid-19, inevitable questions about what the outbreak means for recycling targets and compliance with the government’s laws on producer responsibility for packaging, electronics and batteries have already arisen.
Business as usual
No official position on producer responsibility has been stated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or the enforcement agencies at this stage so the usual state of “business as usual” applies. In practice this means that producers, recyclers and compliance schemes still need to stick to the normal deadlines for registering company information and submitting data. In terms of waste and recycling, the Public Health England guidance for infected households is clear:
“Personal waste (such as used tissues) and disposable cleaning cloths can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags. These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in your usual external household waste bin. Other household waste can be disposed of as normal.”
In practice, the only difference is the need to double-bag waste and wait three days before depositing it in a normal external bin. Therefore, household recycling rates, particularly for packaging, are unlikely to be directly affected. Certainly, the idea that material might be incinerated instead of recycled due to contamination does not look likely at this stage, although experience from the last week demonstrates how quickly things can change. At least for the time being, it looks like recycling rates are more likely to be affected by a national and global slowdown, rather than any changes at the doorstep.
In extreme circumstances, it may simply be that consumption, and therefore disposal, of packaging reduces in 2020. As packaging recycling targets are based on what was sold in the prior year, when consumption was at normal levels, it may simply be that not enough recyclable material is available to be recycled at the doorstep to meet targets. This exposes an inherent difficulty in setting targets for the recycling of short-life packaging that stays in the home no longer than a few weeks, with difficulties relating to this having previously been experienced whenever consumer confidence is low.
Given the significant reliance the UK has on exporting material to be recycled in order to meet packaging recycling targets, the closing of borders could be somewhat problematic. In extreme circumstances, it may be necessary for enforcement agencies to grant exemptions to allow sites to store an increased amount of recyclable material while they wait for trade routes to reopen. The transience of the virus is likely to be the decisive factor in determining whether such actions are required.
While it is always possible that the government could reduce packaging recycling targets, it looks unlikely until more information is known.
However, Defra does have much more scope to make changes to WEEE targets as it is currently in the process of deciding on collection targets for 2020.
Producers may be concerned that local authority household waste and recycling centres (HWRCs), where most waste electronics are deposited, may be forced to shut, and that a retail slowdown could affect the number of devices upgraded leading to reduced disposal. On the other hand, producers will be relieved that the Compliance Fee backstop for missed targets is well established and likely to be granted, if the targets prove to be unachievable.
The decision on collections targets for WEEE is due to be published by the end of March but unless anything drastic changes in the next week, it is unlikely that Covid-19 will figure highly in the decision-making process.
The recycling rate for batteries has been 45 per cent for several years now and is unlikely to change. Covid-19 is highly unlikely to cause a significant reduction in the amount of batteries recycled. Over the last decade, the two main challenges in meeting the targets have been the stockpiling of spent batteries in the home, rather than depositing them in retail collection containers, and the ease with which citizens can dispose of them with mixed household waste due to their small size.
The virus may increase the amount of stockpiling but eventually people will return to their daily business and deposit their batteries if they would have done so anyway, and, likewise, those who have always wrongly put batteries in a bin destined for landfill or incineration will continue to do so.
It is always within the government’s and enforcement agencies’ gift to take a relaxed position on recycling targets not being met, if they feel there are extenuating circumstances. They will not do so lightly, given the potential unfairness such a decision could have on recyclers, producers and compliance schemes. Proactively reducing recycling rates when the situation is still uncertain would be a bold step to take. It seems more probable that they will favour retrospective action, once the picture becomes clearer.