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The EPR Debate

April 7, 2015

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) takes center stage today at NERC’s spring conference in Delaware. EPR is a topic sure to bring some heated discussion. I’ve previously posted a couple of guest blogs from Upstream on the topic—To Build a Broader Coalition for EPR in the U.S. Advocates Need to Abandon Some Cherished Ideas and UPSTREAM presents: The Politics of Extended Producer Responsibility: Moving Forward in Hard Times. Both of these address obstacles to expanding extended producer responsibility and recommendations for the path forward.

One presenter at NERC’s conference, Reid Lifset, Research Scholar, Resident Fellow in Industrial Ecology, and Associate Director of the Industrial Environmental Management Program, Yale University, states that EPR “imposes responsibility on producers for the environmental impact of products and materials throughout the product life cycle.” He continues, “Typically, EPR policies are enacted in order to facilitate high levels of recycling by tapping the expertise or financial resources of producer groups.” And, “More fundamentally, EPR attempts to internalize externalities by changing the behavior of producers by tightening the link between product design and marketing decisions and waste management-related concerns.”

There are currently 92 EPR laws in 34 states (including the eight industry-managed container-deposit laws for beverage containers). However, most of these laws were passed prior to 2011. Since then, only 11 EPR laws have been passed, including legislation for paint, mattresses, electronics, and batteries. These more recent implementations were largely built on consumer-fees for financing the laws and enjoyed relatively strong industry support. These days obstacles to expanding EPR include decreasing public interest in environmental issues, the increasing influence of conservative, pro-business, and anti-regulation policy-makers, and opposition by industry.

Call2Recycle and PaintCARE, are well known and successful examples of industry-backed product stewardship programs. The Mattress Recycling Council came about after California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island enacted laws requiring the mattress industry to establish a mattress recycling program in their states. Under this legislation, companies selling mattresses and box springs to consumers in these states must collect recycling fees on sales and remit them to the Mattress Recycling Council.

There are currently 25 states with electronic scrap (“e-scrap”) laws. These laws, passed by state legislators, mandate electronics recycling (the “covered” items vary between states, but most cover televisions, CRT monitors, and computers). All laws except California and Utah use the producer responsibility approach, where the manufacturers must pay for recycling. In California, consumers pay a fee at purchase to cover the eventual recycling of the purchased item. In Utah, manufacturers are required to promote recycling, but not participate in the collection of e-scrap. These laws have proven effective at keeping electronics out of the wastestream.

Advocates promote EPR as helping to divert targeted items from disposal to recycling and/or proper recovery (in the case of toxic materials), as well as serving to reduce public expenditures by allowing the costs of treatment and disposal to be incorporated into the total cost of a product. This point is particularly beneficial for electronics, household hazardous materials, and paint, where disposal costs are typically borne by public entities. And, another important benefit advocated by EPR supporters is the fostering of improvements in product design that promote environmental sustainability.

Ultimately, the goal is for shared responsibility between industry, the consumer, public entities, recycling companies, and other stakeholders.

EPR opponents advocate that market driven motivations suffice to incentivize reductions in toxicity and to promote material use reduction (such as in packaging light-weighting) and product recyclability, etc. Moreover, corporate social responsibility commitments are fostering lifecycle assessments of products and product designs that reduce product impact on the environment.

Who is correct? Do both sides make valid arguments? In today’s environment is it possible to expand EPR? Are the states going to be the driving force, such as in mattresses and electronics? Can organizations such as the Product Stewardship Institute continue to gather stakeholders together to bring about more EPR? What are the drivers to bring industry to the table with more success? There are a lot of opinions on EPR and its related topics…its benefits, costs, role in a capitalist economy, and its role in an ever expanding world economy. The debate will undoubtedly continue…


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