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Coffee cup scheme cut from EPR

Is the disappearance of a takeback scheme for single-use cups from EPR regulations reason to panic? By David Burrows

A mandatory takeback scheme for single-use cups has been omitted from the UK Government’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. The move, reported by very few, has left some in the industry baffled. “[…] we don’t know if mandatory paper cup takeback is dead in the water or whether more time is required by Defra to develop the scheme before it can be enshrined in legislation,” the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) told members in its weekly bulletin.

In an email to Footprint, a Defra spokesperson clarified that the cup scheme had been removed, adding that “the best legal vehicle for delivering the mandatory cup takeback obligations has been an ongoing consideration”. They said it was “decided that these obligations will be introduced through a separate regulation to allow further time for stakeholder engagement”. 

No timetable or further information is currently available. At a stakeholder webinar held on Thursday last week, Defra officials said they were “still working through” outputs from meetings held in November 2023 with stakeholders affected by the proposed rules, which covered industry readiness and the operability of the policy.

Omitting the scheme from the draft EPR regulations does not separate it from extended producer responsibility, said civil servants in response to a question from FPA executive director Martin Kersh during the webinar. It just means “we are delivering it through different regulation. The exact timing is still to be confirmed,” the official explained, adding: “We want to be sure the scheme will deliver the environmental outcomes we are seeking from it.”

Cup counts

Mandatory takeback would require businesses selling filled disposable fibre-based cups to provide for the separate collection of used cups (either generated in-store or consumed ‘on-the-go’), through both in-store and front of shop collection points. They would also have to arrange for the collection and recycling of the cups. All cups would need to be accepted at collection points, regardless of brand or where the drink had been purchased.

The government’s impact assessment suggested the scheme, originally planned for 2024 but then delayed until 2025, could improve recycling rates from 0.25% to 39%. This was based on the results of a trial in Leeds, run by Ecosurety and Hubbub, which resulted in 600,000 cups being collected from street bins, work places and retailers, and then recycled. 

Footprint research published in 2023 showed Costa had managed to recycle 165 million cups since its scheme began in 2018. The target however was for 500 million by 2020. Industry insiders suggested their efforts, which have resulted in over 6,300 collection points being introduced across the UK, still suffer from a “visibility challenge”. Only 1% of 1,100 individuals use cup recycling bins, according to the National Paper Cup Recycling Scheme.

The scheme was set up in 2018 by Costa and Valpak and is currently co-funded by seven other major brands including McDonald’s, Caffè Nero, Pret A Manger, Greggs, Burger King, Pure and Lavazza Professional. The website says 189 million cups have been recycled since 2018. The last update on progress, in 2020, showed just 6% of cups were recycled (missing the target of 8%).

Research by Wrap and Valpak estimates that some 3.2 billion fibre-composite (plastic-lined) cups were placed on the market in 2019. This equates to 35,300 tonnes of waste, with just 2.8% recycled. There is enough recycling capacity to recycle all of these cups, said Wrap. Recycling rates for the lids, most of which are made from polystyrene, is close to zero (the lids were also found to be the major contaminant in the Leeds trial). 

In January, Biffa launched a nationwide recycling service for hot and cold takeaway drinks cups.  James Cropper has also developed technology so that both the waste plastic and the paper from each disposable cup can be recycled. The fibre has always been a sought-after material but the plastic, which tends to make up around 5% of the cups, is separated and processed into plastic pellets which are used to make new products. 

Of the mandatory scheme, FPA’s Kersh said: “We really want to get this moving.” Indeed, voluntary cup schemes have struggled for investment and engagement, which has led to those sub-double-digit recycling rates. A mandatory cup scheme is seen by some as a way not only of reviving this concept but also delaying stronger regulation, like a charge on single-use cups. 

Scotland is certainly keen to introduce a so-called ‘latte levy’ as part of its circular economy package. Last year, the UK Government said: “We have taken note of the evidence provided by respondents on this subject and are now aware that consulting on introducing a charge on all single-use cups in all business sizes would generally be supported. Defra will consider next steps.”

Packaging progress

While the foodservice sector waits patiently for more news on the cup scheme, there is more certainty relating to other areas of EPR (spoiler alert: there is still no update on fees).

The Draft Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging and Packaging Waste) Regulations 2024 were sent to the European Union and the World Trade Organisation last week. Defra said this represents a “major milestone” in its commitment to introduce packaging EPR for packaging from next year. 

Several significant changes driven by stakeholder feedback have been made to the draft regulations. Industry is busy unpicking these but noteworthy so far is the delay to a unified, binary system of labelling (recycle/do not recycle) until April 1st 2027 (labelling was certainly the issue attracting most questions during the Defra webinar). There is also a provision ensuring that if a deposit return scheme (DRS) has not been established by January 1st 2028, producers of drinks containers made of PET plastic, aluminium and steel will be subject to the full range of packaging EPR obligations (disposal costs, labelling and recycling obligations) until a DRS is operational for these materials.

“Given [that] we started this process in 2018, it has been a long time coming,” said Ecosurety director of policy and innovation Robbie Stanniforth, who is also currently a member of the steering committee which is advising the scheme administrator for packaging EPR in the UK. “This an important step in the process of bringing a system into existence that will motivate packaging producers to use more recyclable packaging or refillable packaging systems in the UK,” he added.

Next milestone

The next major milestone is May 31st. By this point, large packaging producers need to have reported their data (this is an extended deadline thanks to a regulatory position statement issued by the Environment Agency last year).

New guidance published in March includes details of the data that must be collected and the relevant deadlines. There is also updated information on how to determine whether packaging is household or non-household (which industry has been waiting patiently for).

list of those who have reported their data up to April 16th includes Carlsberg, Carluccio’s, Greene King, Innis & Gunn, McDonald’s, Molson Coors, Nestlé, Sodexo, Wahaca and Yeo Valley. There is seemingly no data yet from Accor, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Compass, Heineken, PepsiCo and many others likely to be in scope of the regulations. There have been technical issues with reporting, but it’s worth noting that those who haven’t done so by the deadline could face enforcement action.

At the Packaging Innovations show in March, Defra officials admitted there was “a bit of a gap” in submissions. A slide showed there had at the time been 5,125 fully approved enrolments of report packaging data (RPD) from large producers. Of those only 1,986 submitted their packaging data, and only 1,744 have registered their organisational details. The current list of data submissions is now nearing 3,000.

The data will help Defra go about the complicated and contentious business of calculating fees. More data for example is needed on fibre-based composite packaging, like cartons, which have become increasingly popular due to a backlash against plastic. 

The fees could cost businesses a total of £1.7bn a year (£1.2bn of which is currently picked up by the taxpayer). However, they should provide an incentive to use more materials with increasingly lower environmental impact. 

Producers will begin accruing fees for the management of their packaging from April 2025, with fee modulation being introduced from 2026. The four UK administrations intend to provide “illustrative estimates” of fee rates “as soon as possible” Defra said recently.  The closest we got to officials naming a firm date for any further information on fees during the webinar was “very soon”.

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