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Published by Recycling & Waste World

Extended Producer Responsibility has been used internationally for over 25 years as a tool to move towards a circular economy, to varying degrees of success.

According to Zero Waste Europe, on average less than 40 per cent of the waste within the scope of an EPR scheme is being collected. Yet recovery rates fluctuate widely, from 70 per cent in Brussels to less than 10 per cent in Bucharest and Zagreb.

Research by the European Commission and the OECD has generated recommendations and guidance as to how EPR models might be strengthened, and so for Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs) it could be a time of great change.

Confused by EPR

Strengths and weaknesses

According to Joachim Quoden, Chair of the ISWA Working Group on EPR and Managing Director of Extended Producer Responsibility Alliance (EXPRA), “In countries that have licensed several PROs for the same sector, we see that the government is not enforcing the law, nor monitoring or steering, and there is no clearing house or central agency to ensure a fair level playing field. In these countries very often the problem is that there is no real separate collection system for household packaging but ‘wild-west’ competition.”

The European Commission has recognised the system failures in the current approach and, with support from within the European Parliament, has been pushing for minimum rules for EPR. The changes will be designed to provide a strong legal framework, as well as clarification of methodologies and definitions to level the playing field among Member States, which Quoden believes will bring us “a big step forward”.

At the ISWA 2016 congress in Serbia in September, Quoden will chair a special session titled “Time and Need for changes in EPR systems? Current status, challenges and perspectives,” at which Peter Börkey of the OECD Environment Directorate will be presenting the new EPR guidelines.

During the session, Julius Langendorff, Deputy Head of the Waste Management & Recycling Unit at the European Commission’s DG Environment, will also present the EC’s proposed minimum requirements for EPR as part of the Circular Economy Package which the industry has long been calling for.

EPR: the global perspective

Globally, the uptake of EPR is gaining pace, and the OECD with support from the EU is developing guidelines that can also work in emerging markets. One of the panellists at the ISWA special session, Russ Martin of the Global Product Stewardship Council, will be sharing experience of improving EPR programmes worldwide.

Many emerging market economies are beginning to implement EPR and the OECD and EU are naturally keen to share good practice and ensure that known system weaknesses are not replicated. Introducing EPR in emerging economies also poses new challenges, not least of which says Quoden, are the social aspects.

“In countries with starting or sub-optimal waste management systems, the biggest challenge is the informal sector. Up to now, recycling has depended mostly on people collecting valuable materials from residual waste. If you now ask industry to set up EPR systems where valuable materials should be collected in a professional and safe and structured way, you run into competition with the informal sector.”

Such considerations mean that systems need to be implemented sensitively, paying close attention to social implications as well as the environmental and economic impacts. The experience in Europe has much to lend to emerging economies, but models will need refining to take into account these significant cultural and social differences.

Pushing EPR up the waste hierarchy

To date, much of our experience of EPR has been focused on the recovery of materials once they have become waste.  Many fewer policies have targeted producers, who have the most control over the use and management of harmful materials. It is at this point, perhaps, that the most valuable legislative interventions could be made. Working with manufacturers to improve the durability and recyclability of materials will bring far-reaching benefits.

In April this year, the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) suggested that the Eco-design Directive work plan should provide a platform for product designers and the waste management sector to learn from each other.

It has also been suggested that fees paid to EPR schemes could be used to incentivize manufacturers to design products in a recyclable and non-hazardous way. In such cases, a manufacturer would pay more to an EPR scheme for a product with poor recyclability, and vice versa.

While final policy changes may seem uncertain at present, there is a unified call from the sector for greater regularity in EPR systems, closer working with manufacturers, and recognition of the important role that EPR will play globally in securing a more sustainable future.

With so much development around EPR schemes taking place, those keen to understand the future direction of policy in Europe and beyond will benefit from attending the ISWA special session in Serbia this autumn.

The ISWA world congress 2016 takes place in Novi Sad from 19-21 September. For more information visit iswa2016.org