Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a waste management concept that, while not new, is finally getting the attention it deserves from a world that is waking up to its importance. Essentially, EPR is a strategy that assigns responsibility for the post-consumer phase of goods to the producers of the waste. As governments around the world try to cope with historic levels of waste and resource depletion stemming from an expanding population and growing consumer affluence, EPR is viewed as a partial solution to this problem.
According to the World Bank, urban municipal solid waste (MSW) levels from 2010 are expected to double by 2025. However, MSW levels in the lower middle-income sector are projected to rise even more — by more than 250 percent. This would mean an increase from 369 kg/capita per year of MSW to 956 kg/capita per year in that sector, which, given the rising pollution levels in the world, is not sustainable environmentally for the planet.
The origins of EPR
The idea for EPR started in Europe in 1990 when Sweden and Germany led the way in encouraging industries that made and sold products to be responsible for the waste stage of those products. EPR programs soon spread to countries around the world. By 2016, there were almost 400 EPR systems in operation worldwide, with about three-quarters of them coming into effect after 2001.
In 2001, the OECD published a manual on EPR for its 37 member countries that outlined key issues, benefits, and costs. According to the OECD, in a report published in 2014 titled The State of Play on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Opportunities and Challenges, most OECD countries have implemented EPR policies in key sectors such as packaging, electronics, batteries, and vehicles. Some emerging economies in Asia, Africa, and South America have also started to develop EPR programs, with the specific features and outcomes of the worldwide EPR programs varying significantly.
Ontario’s legislated move toward a full EPR system
In Canada, the province of Ontario passed a groundbreaking bill in 2016 that, for the first time anywhere in the world, instituted an EPR requirement for all products. At present in Ontario, there is a recycling program available for tires, batteries, e-waste and a household Blue Box program, but eventually, all waste will require recycling or composting. The bill also prevents producers from discharging their liabilities to a third party, which makes them fully responsible.
Benefits of Ontario’s EPR program
Reuse is a better economic strategy than recycling because it requires less energy and fewer resources to process waste into something reusable, saving both time and money.
In Ontario, reuse will be prioritized since it has the potential to lower overall recycling costs. Today, this is not the case. Within the e-waste industry, nearly-new electronics are sometimes shredded because the program doesn’t allow for reuse. The new legislation will offer the opportunity to get much more revenue out of the same waste stream through reuse. Recyclers in Ontario are advocating to allow certified, audited and traceable reuse to be counted toward targets, which would be a significant change from the per pound diversion targets that have been the standard to date.
Another benefit of the new Ontario EPR program is that it will incentivize innovative design and collection models.
At present in Ontario, the cost to recycle e-waste is covered by an environmental handling fee added to the purchase price. The fees are currently set by product type but not by brand and as such, there is zero incentive for designers to produce a better model. This has led to the design trend, for example, of smartphones with glued-in batteries that are both hazardous and labor intensive to remove. If the smartphone manufacturers had to cover the full cost of recycling these phones, they would be forced to either raise their prices or design phones that are easier to recycle.
In the future, Ontario will require manufacturers to meet performance targets based on collection, reuse and recycling. This has historically led manufacturers to design optimally recyclable products as they will now bear the full costs of the post-consumer phase for products.
OEM’s will be able to choose whether they will achieve these targets by themselves or through a collective but, either way, they will be responsible if the targets are not achieved.
Where to go from here?
That all waste will have some sort of recycling requirement attached to it in the future is encouraging. Couple this with the compelling statistic that every 1,000 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill generates seven full-time jobs, $360,000 CAD in wages and $711,000 CAD in GDP and you have the opportunity to engineer an environmental turnaround. Given that Ontario’s current recycling rate is a paltry 25 percent, the EPR legislation bodes very well for the province’s future. Generating jobs and saving resources, which in turn help save the planet, is a lofty goal indeed but well within reach with the new blueprint. The world will be watching to see how it all turns out.