We pollute the ocean with about 12.7 million tons of plastic every year, and the damage to the environment is becoming irreversible. In the UK alone, more than 5 million tons of plastic is consumed each year, but only 1 quarter of it is recycled. The three quarters that isn’t recycled ends up in our environment, polluting oceans and causing damage to the ecosystem. An example of where this waste goes, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is the largest and most famous trash swirl in the world. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is four and a half times larger than Germany.
Big accumulations like this are a very visual reminder of the bad state of the environment. But this also comes with an invisible threat: microplastics. Tiny pieces of plastics are ingested by fish, birds and other animals. Some of them die, some of them land on our plates and eventually in our own bodies.
So, what can we do about this? As society and businesses recognize a need to integrate environmentally friendly practices, who should be responsible for a product once it is no longer useful to the consumer? Who should be responsible for the single-use plastics problem? The answer for many businesses is that the responsibility of proper disposal is forced onto the consumer with little accountability on the producer for the product life cycle. But, a transfer of responsibility, otherwise known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) could be one concept to consider in order to reduce plastic waste packaging, thus helping to reduce the amount that ends up in landfill or in our oceans.
What is EPR?
EPR was initially introduced by the Swedish academic Thomas Lindhqvist in 1990. It involves a shift in responsibility (administratively, financially or physically) from governments or municipalities to producers. It is where manufacturers and importers of products bear a significant degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products throughout the product life cycle.
Assigning such responsibility by governments provides incentives to ensure a reduction of plastic waste through design change in packaging and by promoting the use of alternative materials that are biodegradable.
Since EPR forces companies to change the way they produce, it naturally leads to opposition from the same companies and thus its implementation varies from country to country. The US is the only developed country without a national EPR law addressing packaging, but several states are considering it. In Europe, the vast majority of EU Member States have introduced EPR for packaging but the form of implementation varies between countries, which range from mandatory regulations to voluntary agreements between government and industry to voluntary industry initiatives.
Impacts of EPR implementation
The EPR rules provide a framework for various sectors to minimize their waste production (including plastics) and impact on the environment:
Manufacturers are incited to design products for durability, reuse and recycle parts, and take more responsibility for the end-of-life management of the products that they produce.
Retailers are expected to use product providers who offer greater environmental performance, educate consumers on environmentally preferable products, and enable and encourage consumers to return products for recycling.
Consumers should take responsibility for their buying choices and consider the environmental impacts, as well as to purchase and use products efficiently, and recycle products they no longer need rather than throwing them away.
Governments can launch efforts with industries to use market leverage through purchasing programs for the development of products with stronger environmental attributes, and to develop product stewardship legislation for selected products. Governments can also achieve such responsibilities at minimal cost to citizens by enacting plastic bag fees or bans, set restrictions on plastic straws and prohibit the use of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) used for food containers. For other products such as electrical appliances, initiatives such as the Right to Repair rule could be a step in the right direction. The European Parliament voted in favor of this rule which will be implemented this year. They will make it easier for consumers to repair their own devices and will crack down on practices used by manufacturers that may shorten the lifespan of their products.
Complying to EPR rules brings benefits to companies relying on plastics, which includes lowering the amount of waste that is produced during the lifecycle of a product. At first glance, that does not sound like a benefit at all for a company. Following a profit-oriented imperative themotivations of companies are very different to those of individual consumers and thus their approach to being more sustainable will look different.
Repositioning a brand to be more eco-friendly is a main benefit for companies because it can create good public relations and improve their image. Many businesses seek to voluntarily adopt aspects of the EPR rules to benefit their bottom line. When a company makes sustainability efforts a priority in their business, it not only encourages their customers to be more environmentally friendly, but it also benefits the company by impacting its bottom line by increasing support and sales.
Implementing EPR also encourages innovation and new business models to be created, which will benefit the economy in the long run. Besides that, being environmentally friendly can also increase operational efficiencies, reduce costs, provide better financial and investment opportunities, as well as increasing a company’s preparedness for future legislation such as the EPR or Right to Repair rules. And of course, it can improve recruitment retention of quality employees.
Extended Producer Responsibility schemes could be a solution towards being more resource efficient. EPR is a critical policy tool that holds manufacturers and governments accountable for the end-of-life impacts of their (plastic) products and the packaging it comes in. EPR for packaging in Europe has offered a much more certain future for the entire packaged goods sector as it is less costly for consumers and society at large, and it is the preferred policy tool for industries to drive recovery and recycling packaging rates.
One thing is clear: Plastics monstrosities like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch need to be stopped from growing and we as a society need to make more decisive steps towards a better environment. EPR could be one of the tools that could make a difference.