In Europe, EPR is the Law

© Amanda Swain

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) has a long history in Europe, where it has moved from concept to established law. The idea of EPR was developed by Swedish professor Thomas Lindhqvist, who wrote about “waste-conscious product development” in 1988. The notion was quick to catch on. As Bette Fishbein of INFORM, Inc. has reported, the first EPR law was Germany’s Packaging Ordinance of 1991 (popularly known as “Green Dot”), holding producers responsible for managing packaging waste.

A key innovation was a directive prohibiting public money from being spent to further the ordinance, a lesson that might have been applied in Canada where, for example, bottlers pay out only on the containers collected, not each one sold. Another smart move offered manufacturers an out—They could be exempt from key Green Dot deposit and take-back provisions if they designed and put into place their own systems, which would have to meet targets of recapturing 64% to 72% of packaging materials.

The program caused German manufacturers to reduce their packaging by a million tons by 1995, and packaging recycling increased from 52% in 1993 to 84% in 1996. By 1996, 68% of plastic packaging was recycled. European shelves today feature products from American manufacturers with far less packaging than their U.S. counterparts.

It’s not surprising that some environmentalists criticized a program that allowed industry to police itself, and indeed there was reason for concern as some manufacturers took the easiest way out in terms of waste disposal. But EPR for packaging waste was adopted by 15 member countries of the European Union in 1994, then spread to eastern Europe. Japan adopted EPR for packaging in 1995, and the law went into effect there in 1997.

Europe also adopted the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive in 2003 to collect end-of-life television sets, stereos and cell phones. A snapshot of e-waste in different countries shows Germany generating 1.1 million tons in 2005, and the U.S. more than doubling that. But the U.S. has nothing remotely comparable to WEEE, though there are many local electronic recycling initiatives.

Japan incorporated EPR principles into its Home Appliance Recycling Law in 2001, and a take-back campaign for computers began in 2003. The Japanese system requires consumers to pay a recycling fee when they discard products, which is more likely to encourage scofflaws than collecting the fee at the time of purchase (as is done in Europe). Nonetheless, this author saw very efficient high-volume electronics recycling underway at Panasonic facilities in Japan in 2010, with a firm commitment from manufacturers and consumers alike.

Product Pileup

There have been bumps along the road, largely due to the export of e-waste when host countries are overwhelmed by product volume. Some early packaging waste was exported and dumped abroad rather than recycled. And according to a doctoral thesis on EPR by Tiptira Rammaniya, a 2001 investigation by the Basel Action Network and an arm of Greenpeace discovered that exported e-waste sent to the Chinese town of Guiyu in Guangdong Province was being processed with bare hands, and without protective clothing—and much equipment was simply being burned. China has laws against such practices, but Rammaniya notes that “the sheer volume of waste traffic through Chinese ports and intentionally falsified labels,” as well as bribery and corruption, has resulted in rampant abuse. Similar practices also occur in India on a larger scale than in China. Worker conditions, including those of child laborers, are also worse, Rammaniya reports.

Despite these setbacks, EPR is a firmly established principle in Europe and parts of Asia, with its public benefits no longer debated. And it has been mandated at the national level, rather than implemented on a state and local level as it has been in the U.S.

CONTACTS: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): an Alternative Solution to Regulate the International Electronic Waste Trade by Tiptira Rammaniya (Golden Gate University School of Law); Green Dot; INFORM, Inc..