Have you ever wondered why you, as a consumer, have to bear the burden of recycling in its effort, time, and money? (for information on how there is an economic incentive to recycle and penalty against throwing away general waste in areas where municipal governments enforce pay-as-you-throw systems, check out one of our previous blog post) Although it makes sense that a consumer who wanted to buy and consume a product should have the responsibility to dispose of it in an appropriate manner, shouldn’t the company which produced said product take some responsibility, too? This was the change in mindset that brought about Extended Producer Responsibility. If you Google that word, you find yourself going through very fancy looking papers from renowned organizations and colleges, so allow us to put it in simple terms for you—EPR for Dummies.
What is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?
Previously, a producer’s responsibility was limited to production and sales; it was deemed enough that the producer made sure that in the manufacturing process it did not harm the health and safety of its workers or residents of its environs and that its sold products were safe and did not pose risks to the public. The producer responsibility has then been ‘extended’ (hence the name) to later stages of a product’s life-cycle: disposal, recycling, and reuse.
While we’re on terms, definitions, and semantics, let us also discuss ‘product stewardship,’ a term often used interchangeably with Extended Producer Responsibility. They can both refer to how producers have responsibility for disposal and recycling of products, but EPR does so by indicating that the producer’s responsibility regarding the products has been expanded, while product stewardship indicates that all stakeholders of the products (including producers) have responsibility. Speaking of all stakeholders, consumers still have the responsibility to properly recycle after they are finished consuming the products. Imagine if all consumers didn’t bother recycling their drink bottles and just chucked them into general trash to be landfilled; it would render all the efforts by companies to recycle pointless. Consumers have the responsibility to properly dispose of these products while producers and recycling processing companies have the responsibility to collect and reuse as well as many others in the chain.
What type of products are subject to EPR?
Which products are subject to legal requirements for producers to collect and reuse differs by countries and jurisdictions. A type of product can become a target of EPR because it can easily be recycled, but the bigger criteria calling for EPR is the environmental degradation resulting from disposing products and materials in landfills. Types of products that are often subject to EPR include chemical products like pesticides, pharmaceuticals, paint, batteries and electronics. As hinted above, drink bottles – glass or plastic – are a prominent example of EPR schemes; many governments put the responsibility to recycle (throw away separately) bottles on customers by charging deposit fees, some higher than others, but few governments go further and require producing companies to collect and reuse a certain amount or pay punitive charges.
How does EPR affect companies?
It does not sit well with many companies that they would be mandated to meet a quota or else pay a ‘fine’ (most common, although there are other measures to incentivize companies). While EPR may look like another tradeoff situation where a profit-pursuing firm’s interests must be curbed for the sake of sustainability, it does not have to be. Better management of packaging and disposables can ultimately save costs. For example, it requires 95% less energy to manufacture aluminum cans out of recycled materials than from new raw aluminum. Think about it – when consumers and companies alike are trying their best to make sure that containers/batteries/electronics (whatever!) end up back with their original producers, it saves the company time, effort, and money to procure those materials anew and process them.
We here at Ecube Labs always stress that environmental sustainability and efficiency can coexist. We hope that more EPR schemes that catch 2 birds with 1 stone are further developed and spread around everywhere.