The recycling industry is in a crisis right now. Participation is low. Recyclables fetch low prices on the commodity market. Centers are closing. A concept called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) may help.
It’s also called product stewardship. It shifts the financial burden of handling recyclables from governments to manufacturers.
Manufacturers benefit, too. It should boost recycling rates and return resources to producers that they can reuse or recycle.
Hans Töpfer, German Minister of the Environment, invented the concept of EPR. He introduced it in the Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste in 1990. The ordinance required producers to take back packaging for recycling. Other EU members and Canada quickly considered EPR laws.
So the waste became the producers’ responsibility, not the consumers’.
The ordinance required manufacturers to consider waste management and related concerns while designing products. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” joined the conventional concerns of product development.
It also required retailers to supply bins where consumers could return “secondary packaging.” In other words, consumers wouldn’t return a used tube of toothpaste, but they would return the carton it came in.
And retailers no longer had to figure out how to dispose of pallets and shipping containers. They could send the waste back where it came from.
Producers could no longer treat materials as something to buy, use, sell, and forget about. They became stewards of the materials in their products.
What is product stewardship?
The concept has some limited use in the US. Grocery stores now take back plastic bags. Reid Lifset described EPR in 1993, when the ordinance had been in effect for little more than a year.
It was way too early to assess whether the result justified the disruption and high costs it imposed on producers.
Producers already had legal responsibility for air and water pollution controls. “Extended” producer responsibility adds to these standard responsibilities. EPR laws make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products:
- Extraction and delivery of raw materials
- Waste management: collection processing and disposal of wastes.
Responsibility for waste management includes more than just packaging. German car companies began to experiment with dismantling plants. These plants made it easier to reuse or recycle parts of junk cars.
In the American political system, the government has intervened in cases of the failure of the market to get prices right. It has attempted to compensate for “negative externalities.” That is, an economic activity can have a detrimental impact on a third party.
Uncontrolled water pollution, for example, causes greater expenses for water purification and healthcare. These external costs ought to be part of the price of goods and services.
It won’t work to have some producers, but not others, consider these costs in their prices. In that case, consumers will choose the less expensive products. They’ll also wind up paying the external costs in higher taxes and medical bills.
These negative externalities form the rationale for our most basic environmental regulations. Consider the Clean Air Act. Power plants had to install scrubbers in their smoke stacks to reduce air pollution. As a result, electricity became more expensive. But the air became cleaner. Public health improved.
What do producers think of EPR?
Manufacturers vigorously opposed much of our basic environmental legislation. Many still seek to weaken laws and regulations.
One would think that producers would fight any proposal for EPR with equal vigor. Instead, some embraced it and began to advocate for EPR laws.
Nestlé Waters and Coca Cola wanted to use more recycled PET in their bottles. They needed more empty bottles than the current recycling system provided. But they opposed bottle bills, which would require them to fund deposits on containers.
Michael Washburn, Director of Sustainability at Nestlé Waters of North America (NWNA), published various articles to explain why EPR can fix a broken recycling system. Currently, recycling is an unfunded mandate. States require recycling, but provide little or no money. As a result, he wrote, municipalities provide inefficient and ineffective programs.
NWNA hardly counts as a sustainability hero. Bottled water isn’t good for the environment at best. California has suffered five years of drought. Yet Nestlé continues to bottle California’s water and send it all over the country.
Nevertheless, anything that keeps billions of plastic bottles out of the waste stream is positive. If bottlers can do a better job of reclaiming bottles than cities and towns, more power to them.
The beverage industry has long received criticism for cans and bottles. Maybe that’s why Washburn’s articles specifically limit Nestlé’s concerns to PET plastic and printed paper. Other consumer industries have not heard so much complaining about their packaging. They have not joined bottlers in pressing for EPR laws.
EPR laws in the US
As of August 2016, 34 states have at least one law that assigns manufacturers financial responsibility for the cost of recycling or safely disposing of their products.
Vermont and California each have eight laws. Local EPR laws exist in three states.
These laws cover the following product categories
- Appliances that contain refrigerants
- Auto switches
- Cell phones and other electronics
- Fluorescent lights
- Pesticide containers
- Thermostats that contain mercury
Product stewardship for these materials is good as far as it goes. More states ought to enact EPR laws to take them out of the waste stream. In fact, all states should enact laws that cover all of them.
But notice: nothing on the list relieves municipalities of any of their recycling burdens. Nothing touches packaging.
Most of the information I have found for this article is at least three years old. Grocery manufacturers and others haven’t risen up in opposition. They have simply sat back to see if it ever becomes a big enough issue to make them act.
Let’s do what we can to make it a big issue. You can start by sharing this post.
Extended Producer Responsibility: a win-win for business and governments / Michael Washburn, Sustainable Brands, February 5, 2013
Map of state EPR laws / Product Stewardship Institute
Take it back: extended producer responsibility as a form of incentive-based environmental policy / Reid J. Lifset. Journal of Resource Management and Technology. Vol. 21, no. 4 (December 1993): 163-175
Waste not, want not: extended producer responsibility would require manufacturers to collect and recycle packaging / Amy Westervelt, Good. July 20, 2012
You see garbage, I see value: let’s make recycling a business a no-brainer / Nestlé Waters of North America, Good. March 9, 2013
Plastic bottles after the London Marathon. Some rights reserved by Paul Simpson.
Plastic on a river bank. Some rights reserved by Horia Varlan
Bottled water in supermarket. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Old mattresses. Some rights reserved by Ralph Hockens