By David Haskell
NZ2000 Plastics, Otaki, NEW ZEALAND firstname.lastname@example.org
"The responsibility, that the waste generated during the production processes could be taken care of in a proper way, from an environmental and resource-saving point of view, should primarily be of the manufacturer. Before the manufacturing of a product is commenced it should be known how the waste which is a result of the production process should be treated, as well as how the product should be taken care of when discarded."
Official statement by the Swedish Government in 1975 ushered in the age of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
What is Extended Product Responsibility?
While there are many definitions of EPR, it is generally described as a pollution prevention policy that focuses on product systems rather than production facilities. Thus responsibility for product is broadened beyond the emissions and effluents generated by the extraction or manufacturing processes to include the management of the product once it is discarded. EPR is based on the premise that the primary responsibility for waste generated during the production process (including extraction of raw materials) and after the product is discarded, is that of the producer of the product.
What is the goal of Extended Product Responsibility?
The ultimate goal of EPR is sustainable development through environmentally responsible product development and product recovery. The theory is that by making producers pay to remediate the waste and pollution they create, they will have an incentive to incorporate a broader range of environmental considerations into their product design, packaging and choice of materials. The incentive is to reduce consumption of resources at all stages of the life-cycle of a product or package. Cleaner production and waste prevention are the goals.
What are the various types of Producer Responsibility?
Thomas Lindhquist, sometimes referred to as the father of EPR, has identified five basic types of producer responsibility:
Liability - producer is responsible for environmental damage caused by the product in question Economic responsibility - producer covers all or part of costs for collection, recycling or final disposal of products they manufacturers.
Physical responsibility - manufacturer is involved in physical management of the products or of the effect of the products. This can range from merely developing the necessary technology, to managing the total "take back" system for collecting or disposing of products they manufacture.
Ownership - producers assumes both physical and economic responsibility
Informative responsibility - producer is responsible for providing information on the product or its effects at various stages of its life cycle
Why should producers be responsible for their products?
It is the manufacturer who develops and designs the product or package, and it is the manufacturer who chooses the materials for that product or package. Therefore, the most efficient and effective point at which to reduce waste and encourage reuse, reduction and recycling, is at the product development stage. It is at that point in the product's life cycle that decisions can be made to minimize the environmental impact of the product.
Under most NZ systems of residential waste management, local government, i.e., ratepayers, foot the bill for disposal and recycling.
In the words of one disgruntled ratepayer, "Producers reap the reward for selling their products and ratepayers get stuck with the bill. Its our rates dollar which support disposal and recycling programs to get rid of it" Under existing conditions - Local Authorities will always to be the ambulance at the bottom of the waste avalanche. EPR shifts the costs of managing post consumer products and packaging from the public to the private sector.
Internalizing the external costs through a combination of economic and physical responsibility provides an incentive to manufacturers to design products that have minimal environmental impact throughout their lifecycle, and maximum reuse, recycling and reduction opportunities. This can only be achieved if internalization of the externalities is accompanied by an obligation to reuse or recycle. Where there is an incentive, there is a way. Sustainability is what those who support producer responsibility and oppose wasting want to achieve. Sustainability is both a goal and a process to achieve that goal. Developing and designing products that minimize total environmental impact is one way of achieving sustainability. All too often, the pollution costs, resource and energy consumption costs, and disposal costs are subsidized by government, and are therefore, not reflected in the price of a product. EPR corrects that imbalance by internalizing these externalities, and in so doing, shifts these costs from government and taxpayers to producers and consumers.
The frequently talked about "level playing field market" is now tilted strongly in favour of those manufactures who produce product with no regard for its pollutive consequences. Responsible companies are disadvantaged, as they are not rewarded for good behavior. Thus the need for a common legislative framework, setting performance standards applicable to all producers.
How are these responsibilities implemented?
There are three categories of policy instruments that can be initiated by government to encourage product responsibility.
Regulatory Instruments: mandatory take-back; minimum recycled content standards; secondary materials utilization rate requirements; recovery rates/time; energy-efficiency standards; disposal bans and restricted; materials bans and restrictions; and product bans and restrictions.
Economic Instruments: advance disposal fees; virgin materials levies; removing subsidies for virgin materials; deposit/refund systems; and environmentally preferable products procurement procedures.
Informative Instruments: seal-of-approval types of environmental labeling (Environmental Choice); environmental information labeling (energy efficiency, CFC content, recycled content); product hazard warnings; product durability labeling.
What EPR instruments are in use today?
A number of instruments are currently being employed to shift responsibility for product and packaging waste from government and taxpayers to producers and consumers. Four policy instruments and examples of each are as follows:
Deposit refund systems: Deposit refund systems can encourage reuse, but at the very least they provide a monetary incentive to the consumer to return the product or package, and an infrastructure for its collection and recycling.
Targeted Product Taxes: Product taxes influence the choice of materials used. A targeted eco-tax levied in Belgium reduced consumption of PVC.
Advanced disposal fees: These fees are designed to influence the choice of materials used, and can generate substantial funds which may or may not be used by government for environmental projects. They are sometimes refunded to consumers, but generally the consumer is unaware of the fee.
Austria has implemented such a fee for refrigerators and refundable disposal fees are required on automobiles in Sweden.
Voluntary agreements supported by regulations: These industry lead agreements are used to phase out undesirable materials, encourage design for recyclability or ensure high rates of reuse or recycling.
SUMMARY: As Dr. R. Fenton, an economist at the University of Winnipeg, points out, "as human beings with unique powers of reason, we share responsibility for exercising stewardship - fiduciary responsibility - over the biosphere and its systems. It is time for industry to step up to the bat and assume its responsibility for the environmental impact of its products and packaging."
Edited for distribution to the Zero Waste Network by David Haskell, Wanganui email@example.com