Extended Producer Responsibility

The Take Back The Filter campaign is very much in line with a broader economic initiative called "Extended Producer Responsibility" (EPR). The term extended producer responsibility has been around for about 15 years, first appearing in German and Swedish policies and law in the early 1990s, but the concept is as old as commerce itself in a free market. Simply put, EPR imposes producer accountability over the entire life-cycle of products and packaging introduced on the market.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to promote the concept of EPR. The EPA’s EPR website, established in 2007, helps to disseminate information about EPR as well as to provide names of non-profit organizations and initiatives in the U.S., such as the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute, which have begun to collaborate for a shift in U.S. policy toward shared responsibility for waste management between producers and municipalities.

How exactly does EPR work? As a policy platform or law, for example, EPR would require a large electronics producer to: limit the amount of heavy metals released during production of a stereo, provide a recycling or "take-back" program for the packing foam and cardboard used to ship the stereo, and develop an internal take-back, or "down-cycling" program, for that same stereo to be transitioned to post-production materials 10 years down the road.

As a guiding principle or law in a free market, EPR has the capacity to shift the burden of waste management "upstream," from overloaded and potentially underfunded municipalities to the original producer of what becomes waste. By requiring producers to cover the economic overhead of waste management, the EPR platform also ensures this "second bottom-line": shared eco-responsibility of the producers and, likely, the municipalities where the products become waste.

In the past 15 years or so, EPR has taken shape as practice and policy in some sectors of many European countries. For example, in Germany in 1993, there were a series of stringent packaging laws passed that required producer take-back of all sales packaging across product lines. Subsequent studies of these German laws have demonstrated widespread positive effects on the economy, both in areas of corporate accountability and waste production. Between 1991 and 1998 in Germany, the per capita consumption of packaging was reduced from 94.7 kg to 82 kg, a reduction of 13.4%. In an EPR system, according to many environmental economists, companies begin to develop more products that have a low economic and environmental cost once they reach their waste stage. In addition, it seems that EPR policies help to promote market forces to create new and better concepts for financing the production and transport of products.

In the United States, in the 1990s and 2000s, EPR has been very slow to spread to any regional or national policy-level. Some of this may be explained by resistance from U.S. corporations. There are, however, some companies who have instituted voluntary take-back programs, most likely because consumer demand for environmental stewardship has actually begun to show a measurable impact on market forces. According to an article in April 2000 in Environmental Science and Technology (Volume34, Issue7, p.170-175), a journal of the American Chemical Society, companies currently participating in voluntary EPR programs include Compaq, 3M, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Frigidaire, and Xerox. In addition, Ford and Saturn have begun to take back automobile bumpers, and some carpet companies, such as Interface Flooring Systems of LaGrange, GA, have moved to lease their products and have an extensive system for "down-cycling" once they become unusable.

Since 2000, there have been a number of great public initiatives in the U.S. at the State level, which demonstrate a changing tide in the U.S. towards EPR and product stewardship. One example is the passage of electronic waste (e-waste) bills (see: State e-waste laws), where companies are required to share the economic burden of existing public e-waste recycling programs. This year, in June 2008, New York City became the first U.S. city to pass a mandatory producer responsibility ordinance for electronic waste (Intro. 728, see below). By July of 2009, manufacturers must begin to implement their waste take-back plans and "accept any of the
covered products that consumers want to return."

Globally, there have been multiple large-scale analyses on the environmental and economic impacts of the EPR policy conducted by multi-national cooperatives like the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Through these efforts, ample evidence has shown that an EPR policy approach can work in two ways: it can relieve the undue burden that municipalities have with waste management, and it can successfully create incentives for producers to both cut back on material usage and spending and also foster better product design (so-called "design for environment" (DfE) changes).

Joining this excitement of recent U.S. trends toward cooperative product stewardship, Take-Back-the Filter is proud to stand, at the grass-roots level, in partnership with policies like EPR and with organizations like the EPA and OECD. We would like to help promote a shared responsibility for environmental stewardship: we believe that when companies like Clorox, or General Motors, or Dow Chemical Company, or Sony, enjoy the benefits of a majority market share in their industry, whatever the size, they are also doubly tasked with the responsibility of leadership in environmental protection.

Additional links:

Here is a broad, EPR theory-driven write-up. OECD Report, 2005. (PDF file)

A more practical analysis by an organization that does work with OECD, called Resources for the Future (RFF) in Washington, DC. (PDF file)

EPA's Product Stewardship website: http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/reduce/epr/about/index.htm

NYC e-waste Bill: Intro 728. http://webdocs.nyccouncil.info/textfiles/Int%200728-2008.htm?CFID=854439&CFTOKEN=78296164

Seth Gale
July 21, 2008

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