25 April 2022 | 5 minutes.

From EPR to UPR: Why producer responsibility might need to be extended further

Electronic waste management by informal workers in Ghana, West Africa. Photo by Fairphone, Ghana.

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Kaustubh Thapa
PhD Researcher at Utrecht University

Kaustubh Thapa, PhD Researcher at Utrecht University

Scientists in the Netherlands have conducted research on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Schemes which many organizations and governments consider ‘crucial’, a ‘cornerstone’ or even a ‘principle’ of a circular economy. Yet, the scientists find that the existing EPR schemes might not be able to deliver if we think of a circular economy on a global, rather than just national, level.

To find out more, REVOLVE Circular caught up with Kaustubh Thapa, PhD researcher at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. His transdisciplinary research focuses on the transboundary movement of European waste to the countries in the Global South in the context of a circular economy and just transition.

Kaustubh, you have worked extensively on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems – could you share the main benefits and the main shortcomings with our readers?

We have researched EPR systems in different European contexts. EPR is a circular economy tool, but we think the existing EPR focuses primarily on waste collection and downcycling. In a recent article, we argued that it is time to upgrade EPR systems for circularity and sustainability. We have identified and point out three major design flaws of the existing EPR if we take circularity into consideration.

First, the existing EPR systems promote downcycling; this means that they degrade the value of products instead of maintaining or upgrading it. Generally speaking, EPR is still focused on recycling, while there are multiple value retention options in the circular economy. EPR ought to prioritize retention options like Refuse, Reduce, Resell/Reuse, Repair, Remanufacture and Repurpose before Recycling.

Secondly, to enable more circularity and sustainability, we recommend including more economic actors, and not just producers and importers, in the EPR systems. Actors engaging in reselling, repairing, refurbishing, or introducing new high-value retention recycling options should be an integral part of the decision-making processes of the new EPR systems that are needed.

Last but not least, the current EPR does not account for multiple product use cycles. The producer’s responsibility ends when waste is exported to jurisdictions outside of the EPR. You might have heard of dumping waste in other countries via loopholes like sending second-hand products that are non-functional or non-durable. These activities are linked to and result in social and environmental harms; EPR currently does not account for these harms.

According to your research, how many countries around the globe have EPR systems in place? Do they achieve their objective of holding producers accountable?

We do not know precisely in how many countries there are EPR systems; we observe however that more and more countries are adopting EPR systems as a circular economy tool. This is wonderful but also problematic if the new EPRs neither lead to more sustainability nor to more circularity. In fact, for EPR to work, context is king: if you want to achieve something sustainable and just, particularly in the Global South, you cannot build EPR systems without including the informal sector. What works in Europe might not work in West Africa. We really need to become much better at waste reduction, delaying waste and ensuring circularity and sustainability when dealing with waste when produced.

Your research also describes a situation where “the existing EPR schemes make producers responsible for the end-of-life management within national jurisdiction only” – why is this a problem? And could you provide us an example of this situation?

Let’s take the case of the international flow of waste, which is prevalent in our society. We see that a producer is no longer responsible once the waste is in another jurisdiction. Electronic waste, for example, is illegal to ship from Europe to Nigeria, but we find many loopholes that enable such processes: used phones are sent to Nigeria as second-hand items. Still, chances are that the old phone is non-functional or becomes non-functional after use in Nigeria, probably sooner than later. However, in the current EPR system European producers do not have the responsibility for taking care of their waste in Nigeria. This does not guarantee the highest sustainability or circularity standards and is likely to encourage evading responsibility.

When waste is out of sight, it is also out of mind. Photo by Fred on Pexels, Terneuzen, Netherlands.

You are suggesting a new format, namely UPR, which stands for “Ultimate Producer Responsibility” – why are you calling for such a format? How are you planning to convince policymakers of its implementation?

Going back to the last question, we want producers to manage their waste not just in one country or region but globally. Waste ‘out of sight’ is also ‘out of mind’ from the producers, and we argue that this should not be the case in a more circular and just future as we envision it. We have developed a campaign and are running a petition as we want to generate support from people around the globe. The petition is based on our research findings on electronic waste, second-hand electric and electronic equipment in Nigeria; Ultimate Producer Responsibility – UPR in brief – is a significant element of the petition, but we also point out other things, like the inclusion of the informal sector, increased international collaboration, the global right to repair and others. We will take the petition to the Nigerian government and the European Commission. Convincing policymakers is not usually the focus of academia, as we are not really trained for such work; we are therefore excited to see and hope that our research can make some impact on policymakers and society.

Your “Ultimate Producer Responsibility” scheme is focused on the management of electronic and electric equipment (EEE) only – could this format be extrapolated to other sectors and industries? If yes, which industries?

Indeed, we believe that UPR should exist for more categories. Think of it this way: while the current Extended Producer Responsibility systems are designed and exist to manage waste in a country, Ultimate Producer Responsibility – UPR – aims to manage waste on Earth, irrespective of the waste’s country of origin. This makes a lot of sense if we look at the enormous transboundary movements of all kinds of waste. However, for UPR or anything alike to work, context is essential and should determine the nuances of the UPR for a variety of waste streams. We think the broader principle of UPR, namely, to hold producers responsible for proper waste management globally and irrespective of where the waste ends up, is universal and applies to all kinds of waste generated by modern society if you want more circularity and sustainability.