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Packaging Waste Regulations quick guide (2024 update)

David Mason: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice xx 31633

Producer Responsibility Obligations

Do you need to comply with the Packaging Waste Regulations?

If your business is UK based, has a turnover of more than £2 million and produces, uses, or sells packaging products, you must register for the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste Regulations). Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) ensure that your business pays a fair proportion of packaging recovery and recycling costs.

The deadline for registration is April. As such, it is essential to ensure your business is compliant if the law requires it.

It is also important to note that the government is introducing a new Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) scheme in 2023. This new legislation aims to further increase recycling by making packaging producers responsible for household packaging recycling and recovery costs. EPR reporting also requires additional detail regarding packaging data.

Waste cardboard covered by the Packaging Waste Regulations
Complying with the Packaging Waste Regulations is easier than you might think.

Yet even if the Packaging Waste Regulations don’t affect you, it is still wise to do an audit. Reviewing your packaging use can help you reduce the volume you use and your carbon footprint.

This guide provides a full explanation of what the regulations are. Plus, it also shows how to check if it affects your business and the steps to take if it does. You can also download a quick reference guide as a PDF.


What are the regulations?

Explanation of the Packaging Waste Regulations

So what are the packaging waste regulations? It’s essential to first understand these before assessing whether you need to meet them.

The regulations were first launched in 1997 in Great Britain (1999 in Northern Ireland). These became the Producer Responsibilities Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007. This later version is still in place today.

The regulations work on the principle of collective responsibility. All businesses that produce or use packaging should contribute towards the cost of recycling and recovery.

A landfill site
The aim of the Packaging Waste Regulations is to limit the amount of packaging that ends up in landfills.

As such, the legislation introduced a Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system (please see the “How it Works” section for further details).

Any business using packaging (“producers”) takes responsibility for any environmental impact, paying a fair proportion towards the costs of recovery and recycling. This system reduces the amount of packaging that ends up in landfills.


Who is responsible?

The price of PRNs varies, depending on the availability of the material recycled. But there are differences when looking at who is responsible.

Four business and activity types qualify under the Packaging Waste Regulations. These are as follows:

  • Raw material manufacturers are responsible for 6% of recovery and recycling. Businesses in this category include manufacturers of the corrugated cardboard material used to make cardboard boxes.
  • Converters (i.e. of material into packaging products) are responsible for 9% of recovery and recycling. Companies such as GWP Packaging that manufacture corrugated boxes are included in this category.
  • Packers and fillers of packaging are responsible for 37% of recovery and recycling. Your business is most likely to fall into this category. It covers the company that fills the box with a specific product for transit or delivery.
  • Sellers are responsible for 48% of recovery and recycling. This category covers the retail shop (such as a supermarket) that would sell the product and packaging to the end user.

It is also essential to add that the regulations generally class a wholesaler as a seller, but they would have their obligation removed if they supply items to a reseller. For example, if they sold a pallet of products to a retailer, it would be the retailer’s responsibility.


How the Packaging Waste Regulations work

Your business must meet defined recycling targets if it qualifies for the regulations. These use annual figures relating to the type and weight of packaging you use or produce.

The regulations require you to register with the appropriate authorities (or outsource to a third party). Then you must provide data covering the weight and type of packaging.

A set of targets – defined by the Government – are then applied. These targets determine the amount in tonnes for which your business has responsibility. Companies must then commit to recycling an equal volume of the specific material. But your business is obviously not expected to do this yourself. Instead, you provide evidence of this recycling in the form of Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

You buy PRNs from accredited recycling companies, which reprocess the specific materials your business handles. Similarly, organisations use Packaging Export Recovery Notes (PERNs) for exporting packaging material.

Market forces determine the price of these PRNs and PERNs through supply and demand.

Plastic bottles covered by the packaging waste regs
Packaging waste regs cover all forms of packaging. Everything from tin cans to cardboard and plastic bottles to paper-based products.

Here is an example based on the amount and type of packaging your business may use. Let’s say you have a target of 100 tonnes of glass and 5 tonnes of corrugated cardboard. In this scenario, the recycling “proof” would need to be an equal weight to the specific materials used.

As detailed previously, you buy this proof from a business registered for recycling these materials in the form of PRNs.

But a recycler can only sell PRNs for the amount of material it recycles. So if the total demand for evidence is less than the amount available, then the price of PRNs are low.

If the market is tight – because it is using more material than is being recycled – the price increases. This higher price then makes collection and recycling more worthwhile, leading to increased PRN “evidence” being available (and costs falling again).

Your business must be able to provide enough evidence to meet its targets.

Your business

Is your business affected by the Waste Regulations?

But are you affected by the Packaging Waste Regulations?

Well, there are a couple of simple questions to ask. These identify whether your business needs to comply.

1: Did your turnover in your last set of accounts exceed £2 million (this must include any subsidiaries if you are a group)?

2: Did your company or group of companies handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging in the last calendar year?

If you answer yes to both of the above, then you have an obligation to adhere to the packaging regulations. If you answered no to either or both of the questions, then you do not need to worry.

Producer Obligation Responsibilities
Your answers show whether you need to adhere to the Producer Obligation Regulations.

It is essential also to consider two important definitions.

“Packaging” is any item used for the containment of goods. It also covers the handling, delivery and/or presentation of goods. This definition covers transit from the producer to the end-user or consumer. It can also include any material.

“Handling” packaging covers any packaging placed onto the UK market. It also covers packaging owned by a company, packaging materials used by businesses around products it supplies, and the manufacture or conversion of packaging. This definition includes imports but does not include exports (similar to the 2022 Plastic Packaging Tax regulations).

Any packaging used only within your business, such as supply chain totes or line-side kitting trays, does not count under this definition.

Please download the free guide (as a PDF) for a detailed checklist. This document also covers whether your business needs to comply and what to do if it does.

What must you do?

So what do you do if you need to meet the producer responsibility obligations? Well, there are various tasks and points that you should complete.

A brief overview of these is as follows.


Registering your business

The first thing to do if you must follow the packaging waste regs is to register.

You can register with the appropriate Environment Agency directly, or you can do so through a scheme provided by a third-party company. Either way, you must do so by April 7th each year. You should complete direct registration through the National Packaging Waste Database (NPWD).

After the cut-off date, you have technically committed an offence, which could mean a potential prosecution. Yet it is advisable to register even if you miss the date. At the time of writing, there are no records of any business having a penalty for late registration.

The appropriate agencies to register with for each region are as follows:

  • England – The Environment Agency (EA)
  • Scotland – The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
  • Wales: The Natural Resources Body for Wales (NRW)
  • Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)

Approved compliance schemes

Outsourcing your compliance

The alternative to registering yourself is to join an approved compliance scheme.

Approximately 20 third parties offer this type of service. The operator of the scheme takes on legal liabilities for all the scheme’s members, meaning that if the scheme fails to meet the regulations, it is them that face prosecution (and not the individual business it represents).

The scheme members still have to supply accurate data about packaging usage, but it’s the scheme operators’ responsibility to buy enough evidence in the form of packaging recovery notes (PRNs). This process allows them to prove compliance at the end of the year.

Some modifications have been made to the regulations since 2011 onwards, though. For example, producers are no longer defined as registered members unless they have paid membership or agency fees. They also need to have supplied the required data.

Data requirements

Information you need

As mentioned earlier, different activities or business types have different responsibilities.

For example, a filler of packaging that handles 100 tonnes is only be responsible for 37 tonnes (37%). The legislation divides the remaining responsibility between the raw material producer, converter and final seller.

The Government – through DEFRA – previously set recycling targets to meet European Union regulations. These targets currently remain aligned following the UK’s divergence from the EU.

Specific recycling targets also apply to different materials. There are seven main categories, which are as follows:

  • Paper/card (cartons, labels of certain types, layer board, paper bags etc.)
  • Glass (bottles, jars)
  • Aluminium (cans, aerosols, foil trays)
  • Steel (cans, drums)
  • Plastic (bottles, pallet wrap, bags)
  • Wood (pallets, dunnage)
  • ‘Other’ (includes miscellaneous items such as jute and cork).

However, the calculations can be somewhat convoluted, covering the activity percentage, recovery target and overall tonnage placed onto the market. But there are many calculators online to aid this process. This one from 360 Environmental is a good example.

Small producer regulations

Options for SMEs

There is also the option of registering as a small producer. This specific part of the scheme is available if your business must meet the Packaging Waste Regulations but has a turnover between £2 million and £5 million.

This option effectively means you are eligible to use more simple calculations – a government-set tonnage multiplied by their turnover (in £ million).

This figure is 30 tonnes per million pounds (£) of turnover. For example, if your company has a turnover of £4.25 million, you would have an obligation of 127.5 tonnes (rounded up to 128 tonnes). This figure would then apply to the main or predominant type of packaging your business handles.

Producer Obligations Packaging Waste Regulations
Businesses with turnover between £2 - £5 million can use the "Small Producers Regulations" instead.


Packaging recycling targets

The following table highlights the individual recycling targets for specific materials.

Material 2019 2020 2021 2022
Paper / Board 73% 75% 79% 83%
Glass 79% 80% 81% 82%
Plastic  55% 57% 59% 61%
Steel  82% 85% 86% 87%
Aluminium 61% 64% 66% 69%
Wood  43% 48% 35% 35%
General Recovery  81% 82% NA NA
General Recycling 92% 92% NA NA
Overall - - 76%* 77%*

Please note that amendments made by the Government in 2020 removed the overall recovery target and revised the method of calculating the overall recycling target.

Recovery evidence is where waste (including packaging) goes through an energy recovery process. For example, this could be incineration to generate electricity.


Costs associated with compliance

Your business is required to pay a fee which goes to the agency. These fees apply if you register with the appropriate environment agency or as part of a scheme.

These fees are as follows.

  Direct Registrant Through a Scheme
Full Producer  £776 £564
Small Producer £562 £345
Subsiduaries £180 each for first four
£90 each for 5-20
£45 each for any others

Please note: Subsidiaries in a Group Registration that use the Small Producer option do not pay subsidiary fees.

Agencies also charge a late registration fee of £110. There is also a £220 fee for re-submission where the original submission is incorrect.

Schemes can charge fees in differing ways – some provide membership fees and separate charges for PRNs, while others charge a (potentially) higher fee that covers all costs.


Are the Packaging Waste Regulations working?

Arguably the most important question is whether the Producer Responsibilities Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations are working.

Well, almost 7,000 companies have registered, representing 10,000 businesses in total. Of these, 6,300 have registered through a compliance scheme (the others registering directly with the appropriate agency).

There have been some prosecutions of businesses that did not register or misreported their obligations. The largest fine to date has been £270,000. Civil sanctions are also becoming increasingly common. Agencies now look to check registered producers to ensure accurate data and identify those ignoring their responsibilities.

The bottom line?

The Packaging Waste Regulations have helped to improve the amount of packaging recycled.

Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs)
The Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) system used by the Packaging Waste Regulations has helped to improve the amount of packaging recycled.

How GWP can help

Elements of this process can sound daunting. But it is something that you can do yourself. Take a systematic, logical approach to identify your responsibilities and supply relevant and accurate information.

Another option is to pay a specialist company to do this for you. Prominent organisations offering this service include Valpak, Wastepack and Comply Direct. Whilst this removes the time, effort and stress, there is a financial cost to your business.

If you decide to manage the process yourself and source your packaging from GWP, then you can ask for assistance with annual usage, volumes, weights and so on.

GWP can also supply you with a detailed report of the packaging you have used in the qualifying period. Segmenting the data by month, product type, material and weight is possible.


Complying with the Packaging Waste Regulations

The packaging waste regulations can be a complicated and daunting prospect. But complying with them can be pretty straightforward, especially if you follow a tried and trusted process.

However, you can see other benefits by being aware of the producer responsibility regulations, as it can get you into the mindset of how you can reduce your packaging use. This understanding, in turn, reduces not only your costs but also the environmental impact of your business.

So if you are a customer of GWP seeking assistance, or have any general questions regarding the Packaging Waste Regulations, please get in touch.

Further reading

About the Author

David Mason, GWP Packaging

David Mason

Sales Director | GWP Packaging

David is Sales Director for GWP Packaging, having initially joined the company (then Great Western Packaging) in 1990. [Read full bio]

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