Fiddling while Rome burns…

27 July 2023

Ray Parmenter, MCIWM Head of Policy and Technical

The government recently announced a year’s delay to the packaging EPR reforms in order to ‘drive down inflation’, citing the pressures facing consumers and businesses in the current economic context.

However, in the ‘real-world’ inflation is largely driven by three interlinked things, the price of oil, the cost of borrowing and international conflict; focussing on secondary issues, such as the cost and disposal of packaging is just tinkering around the edges (in my opinion), and has more than a touch of electioneering about it, rather than being sound policy making. So, it will ultimately be held up by the government as achievement come election time, who’ll say, aren’t we great, we’ve headed off this burden on your hard pressed wallets.

The cost of packaging EPR is, in the grand scheme of things, ‘small-beer’ (no apologies for the pun) in the overall cost of food and other goods, a point well made by the Green Alliance in their response to this announcement. The cost of inaction now could be twice as costly as actually doing it, a point well made by the Office of Budget Responsibility in their Fiscal Risks report last year.

I think the problem is that in making cost the key issue the real agenda has been hijacked. This isn’t about cost it’s ultimately about decarbonisation and making changes where it needs to be made in order to reduce the carbon impact of packaging. Arguably packaging isn’t where you’d start if you were looking to achieve net-zero, but it’s highly visible and has the attention of the general public.

In the context of decarbonisation EPR reforms are vital, because of the importance of producers taking responsibility for the full life cycle of the goods (and services) they place on the market, and the contribution that this will make to limiting global warming to <1.5⁰C cannot be over stated. As recently as July’23 a former UNCCC adviser expressed his doubts about the achievability of the Paris Agreement, and closer to home the UK CCC and the NAO have both be critical of government policy inaction in this area.

The ‘super-tanker’ analogy is the one that springs to mind (again no apology for the pun), and action needs to start now to give the planet the best possible chance of averting the worst effects of global warming; that I quite possibly won’t be around to see, but my children and my children’s children will be. Whatever happened to the government’s pledge to become the first generation to leave that environment in a better state than we found it and pass on to the next generation a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future. It would seem to me to have been consigned to the residual waste bin, rather than recycled or reused…

I’m sure if the government were a company making such tenuous claims as this about reducing inflation and the future state of our environment, the ASA would (quite rightly) come down on them like a tonne of bricks, as they have done recently with companies making unsubstantiated ‘green claims’. Speaking of regulators it’s been very noticeable that the new Office for Environmental Protection has been very silent recently, when this is exactly the sort of thing it appears to have been set up to scrutinise. It will be interesting to see what they have to say, especially given that the Public Accounts Committee have opened an Inquiry into the government’s resources and waste reforms .

The phase – "fiddling while Rome burns", has never been so apt, given the current state of our climate, with wildfires breaking out all over Europe.