The environmental impact of packaging in the UK is controlled by two different pieces of packaging legislation. One covers industry’s role in ensuring that the UK meets recovery and recycling targets, and the other requires producers to ensure that their packaging meets eco-design standards.

These two laws implement the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62/EC, which is Europe-wide packaging legislation.

The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations require businesses handling more than 50 tonnes of packaging and with an annual turnover of more than £2 million to take responsibility for getting specified tonnages of packaging waste recycled.

The packaging and packaged goods industry contributes about £60 million per year to support recycling and in 2008, the UK’s packaging recycling rate was 62% – roughly the average for the 15 countries in membership of the EU before it expanded to 27.

The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 and The Packaging (Essential Requirements) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 allow packaging to be placed on the market only if it meets EU eco-design requirements. Among other things, packaging weight and volume must be the minimum needed for safety, hygiene and acceptability of the packaged product.

Producer responsibility

The UK Packaging Waste Regulations implement part of the European Packaging Waste Directive. They were introduced in 1997 as the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997 and have since been amended by SI (Statutory Instrument) 1999 No 1361 and SI 1999 No 3447.


The aim of the regulations is to meet the recovery and recycling targets in the European Directive by increasing the amount of used packaging that is recycled, composted or burned with energy recovery. The targets for obligated companies are set higher than those in the Directive to compensate for the fact that the UK Government excludes small companies from the Regulations.

What a company has to do

If a company handles more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year and has an annual turnover exceeding £2 million, it has to:

  • In January each year send the Environment Agency or SEPA (in Scotland) evidence that the previous year’s obligation has been met.
  • In April, pay a fee to the Agency/SEPA and complete a form showing the tonnage of packaging handled, recovered and recycled in the previous year.
  • In June, provide a compliance plan to the Agency/SEPA.

Or, a company can join an “exemption scheme” which will carry out the above requirements on behalf of its members. There are 23 exemption schemes, the largest of which is Valpak which operates on behalf of companies which are responsible for over half the obligated packaging.

Sellers Obligation

Companies who sell packaging have an additional obligation to inform their customers about how they can help increase recovery and recycling. INCPEN has produced a leaflet, ‘What you need to know about packaging and waste‘, that companies can order for distribution to customers to help offset this obligation. Since it was first published in September 2000 companies and local councils have distributed over a million copies.

2008 European packaging recovery and recycling rates and UK achievement

2008 EU Directive targets UK achievement
Paper and board packaging 60% 79.8%
Glass packaging 60% 61.3%
Metal packaging 50% 56.9%
Plastic packaging 22.5% 23.7%
Wood packaging 15% 78.5%
Total recycling and composting 55% 61.7%
Total energy recovery, recycling and composting 60% 65.7%

The EU has decided that the 2008 targets are at a sensible level from an environmental and economic perspective. It therefore has no plans to increase targets beyond the 2008 levels. However the UK government has set higher targets for 2009 and 2010.

Packaging eco-design

The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations allow packaging to be placed on the market only if it meets the eco-design requirements and heavy metal limits laid down in the Directive:

  • The weight and volume of any packaging shall be the minimum needed for safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer;
  • packaging should be suitable for material recycling, energy recovery or composting, and suitable for reuse if reuse is intended;
  • noxious and other hazardous constituents of packaging should have minimum impact on the environment at end of life;
  • the sum of the concentration levels of lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium must not exceed 100 ppm by weight, except in the case of plastic crates and pallets and glass containers, where the limit may be exceeded only if higher concentrations are the result of the use of recycled materials.

Local authorities’ Trading Standards Departments are responsible for enforcing the Regulations, and there have been a number of prosecutions and cautions for non-compliance. Companies are required to keep documentation available for inspection by the authorities for up to four years after the packaging was placed on the market.

European standards have been developed which set out procedures companies can use to demonstrate compliance. Standards BS EN 13427-13432 can be obtained from BSi.