Outside view of RPC's transparent glass building.

Waste not, want not! The UK Government "zeroes" in on plastic waste in Food & Drink

13 July 2021. Published by Ciara Cullen, Partner and Sophie Tuson, Senior Associate

Through a series of recent consultations and legislative initiatives, the Government has shown it is serious about reducing plastic waste and shifting the UK towards a more circular economy.

The  Government's motivation for doing so is clear: The UK reportedly generates more plastic waste per person than any other country bar the US and currently less than 10% of household plastics are recycled. This is partly due to present difficulties in recycling so-called 'soft plastics', which the Government intends to enforce the collection of by 2026.  

Consumers are also increasingly concerned about their environmental footprint and are demanding greener and more sustainable products. This is particularly so within the food and drinks sector; recent research has revealed that 69% of European consumers consider sustainability issues (including packaging) when purchasing food and beverages. For those in the industry, the shift away from single-use and virgin plastics and towards more circular models presents enormous opportunities – both to tap into the growing ethical consumer market and to get ahead of the legislative curve.

A new Waste Prevention Programme for England

From 18 March – 10 June 2021, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) ran a consultation on the Government's proposed new Waste Prevention Programme for England.  The results, once published, will reflect feedback from across the food and drink industry and will make for interesting reading. The programme outlines proposals to prevent waste and promote circularity. Strategies under consideration include:

  • Extending and increasing charges for single-use carrier bags;
  • Banning certain problematic single-use plastic items;
  • An Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP) system, to be introduced in 2023; and
  • Funding for research into alternative packaging materials (including via the £60M Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Fund and the £20M Plastics Research and Innovation Fund).

As recently covered in our Retail Therapy blog, some of these initiatives are already afoot. Since 1 October 2020, the sale of certain single-use plastic items, such as drinking straws and stirrers, to consumers has been banned in England, and on 21 May 2021 the Government increased the plastic carrier bag charge to 10p for all retailers. A new tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic will also take effect from 1 April 2022.

The Government has also recently consulted with stakeholders on a new ERP system for packaging (which would see producers cover the cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste), and a new Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers (expected to be implemented in late 2024, at the earliest). A summary of responses to the consultations will be published on Defra's website in due course.

For the food and drink industry, the changes are significant and add to a growing list of challenges, including COVID-19 trading constraints and a narrower scope for advertising HFSS products, that businesses in the sector are already having to adapt to.

‘Closing the loop’

Many businesses are getting ahead of the legislative curve and are moving towards circularity whereby plastic production is reduced, products are kept in use for longer and, at end of life, are recycled. At last count, over 160 businesses had signed up to the UK Plastics Pact. Led by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the Pact aims to eliminate problematic plastics (such as single-use and non-recyclable soft plastics and films) through innovation and packaging redesign. The recycling and reuse of other plastic packaging is also a focus. 

In a bid to specifically tackle problematic 'soft plastics' (which includes plastic bags, food wrappers, films, pouches, packets and sachets), recently, a £1M fund was established and backed by various industry giants. Dubbed the 'The Flexible Plastic Fund', the programme guarantees participants £100 for each tonne of recycled material as a minimum. The hope is that this will give soft plastics a stable value, thereby incentivising participation. Both Waitrose and Sainsbury's have already pledged their support, by announcing that they will host in-store collection points. Other retailers, such as Tesco, are already trialing soft plastics recycling in store with plans to roll this out nationwide by the end of the year. For more information, see our recent issue of RPC Bites.

"Reduce, reuse, recycle"

Within the food and drinks sector, there are already a number of great examples of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ model in action. For example, Co-op’s compostable dual purpose shopping bags (as featured in RPC Bites) are expected to remove 29.5 million 'bags for life' from sale each year, saving 870 tonnes of plastic. Meanwhile, Tesco has announced it will no longer sell beer and cider cans in shrink-wrapping or plastic rings; AB InBev has piloted a new low carbon aluminum can for its Michelob Ultra product line; and Absolut has created a novel paper and recyclable plastic bottle prototype. Coca-Cola has also recently announced its transition to 100% recycled plastic in all on-the-go bottles across its entire range.

Certain businesses are also trialing reuse and refill models as an alternative to traditional linear models of packaging production. For example, Loop has partnered with Tesco and major brands to provide zero-waste packaging that can be cleaned and refilled for repeat use, and Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged to offer refill stations in store, eliminating the need for packaging altogether. 

These solutions present a number of opportunities: IP licencing of novel packaging designs or refilling solutions like these (which avoid plastic and are sustainable) could provide companies with a significant first mover advantage and market share; while for brands, the use of sustainable alternatives can help attract new customers and encourage brand loyalty.

Whilst there are various innovative solutions and pilot schemes in place across the sector, the next challenge will be scaling them up effectively. This will include overcoming initial hurdles such as how to design for mass production, how to deal with additional operational burdens (such as installing refilling facilities, training staff and overcoming inefficiencies) and how to ensure brand equity is retained in low packaging solutions.

Regulation and potential pitfalls

Businesses hoping to leverage the growing consumer demand for sustainable alternatives must also be careful to avoid 'greenwashing' and inadvertently breaching consumer protection laws. UK regulators, such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), have shown they will not hesitate to take enforcement action where brands fall foul of rules relating to environmental claims. In December 2020, the ASA ruled that meal kit subscription service, Gousto, had breached the CAP Code (Rule 11.3) by failing to substantiate claims that its Eco Chill Box was “100% plastic free” and “100% recyclable”. Gousto was required to pull its ads and to ensure that future marketing did not mislead consumers about the composition and recyclability of its packaging.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is also clamping down in this area. Following a six-month investigation into green claims, it is currently consulting on draft guidance for businesses on environmental claims, with a view to rolling out a compliance review later this year. Further details and ‘top tips’ for compliance are available in our latest Retail Therapy article.


Whilst there are various issues to navigate, the potential rewards to both businesses and the environment alike are clear to see. If you would like advice on any of the points discussed above, please contact:

Ciara Cullen: ciara.cullen@rpc.co.uk / +44 (0)7747 033 165;

Sophie Tuson: sophie.tuson@rpc.co.uk / +44 (0)7712 511 815; or

Your usual RPC contact.