Waste Has No Nation – Will the Circular Economy Change That?

4 July 2022 - // Opinions
Sören Bauer
President - Revolve Circular

Limitations of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) require a more global approach to waste management.

In the latter half of the 18th century, largely rural, agrarian societies in Europe and America transformed into industrialized, urban ones. New machines and techniques in textiles, iron-making and other industries produced goods – that had previously been crafted by hand – in large quantities. This industrial mass production enabled societies to gradually overcome scarcities of food, shelter and clothing. “What is wrong with this?” asked Walter Stahel, Swiss architect and author of ‘The Performance Economy,’ in one of our past interviews. “Manufacturers only optimize production flows up to the point of sale, where both ownership and liability of objects are transferred to the buyer, who later passes the responsibility for derelict objects and ‘waste’ to the municipality,” he explained. In other words: Responsibility for products and what they become is first passed from the producer to the buyer, and subsequently to society.

Walter Stahel explains one of the key issues with such a setup: On the one hand, manufacturers internalize profits; on the other, they externalize the cost of the risks during the use of objects to the buyer – who then externalizes the end-of-life costs to society, and the environment. Society and nature have to bear these ‘externalities’ one way or the other, while neither the producer nor the buyer is held responsible.

Fast-forward to the early years of the 21st century: “In the last three decades, the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has been increasingly implemented in waste policy,” wrote the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2001. More recently, in 2016, the organization claimed that worldwide over 400 EPR schemes were in place, “up from about 30 in 1990.” These so-called EPR schemes have been implemented in a diverse set of product types, including electronics, vehicles, batteries, tires, packaging and more. And they are promoted and advocated for by many various organizations as a key component of a circular economy. The PREVENT Waste Alliance, for example, describes EPR as “a key concept for ‘closing the loop’ in the packaging value chain” and has developed an EPR Toolbox that aims to promote knowledge exchange and enhance the development of EPR systems worldwide.

The OECD, which explains Extended Producer Responsibility as “an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle” would mean the physical and/or economical responsibility is shifted away from society back to the producer. The OECD also describes that EPR schemes are characterized by “the provision of incentives to producers to take into account environmental considerations when designing their products.”

Who is responsible for what – and where?

One of the biggest hiccups – or design flaws – of such EPR scheme thinking was recently identified by researchers in the Netherlands, Nigeria and the UK: “Existing EPR systems limit the producer’s responsibility to national jurisdictions. When waste is exported to jurisdictions outside the EPR, the producer’s responsibility does not apply anymore,” they write. And there are consequences: the EPR systems neither result in multiple product use cycles nor, in this case, in safe management of electronic waste. While the researchers had focused on Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) management, one of them, Kaustubh Thapa, states, “We believe ‘Ultimate Producer Responsibility’ (UPR) should exist for more categories than just electronics. Think of it this way: the current Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes exist to manage waste in a country. Ultimate Producer Responsibility, on the other hand, exists to manage waste on Earth, irrespective of the country. If we look at the enormous transboundary trade and shipment of waste, such a UPR system is necessary,” This limitation of European EPR schemes to national jurisdiction is the first design flaw the scientists identified.

Why UPR?

In total, the researchers discovered three design flaws in EPR schemes which led them to develop and advocate for Ultimate Producer Responsibility. The context: in a world where the Global South is often both the start and the end of a given product’s value chain – from raw material extraction via production, to usage, degradation and the (re-) import of much of the Global North’s waste – the nationally limited EPR schemes might indeed need to be replaced by UPR. To reinforce their argument, the researchers have outlined a Blueprint for Ultimate Producer Responsibility which also describes the two other design flaws: European EPR systems promote downcycling rather than maintaining value of a product or upgrading it, which results in loss of value, and not the value retention which a Circular Economy aims to achieve. Furthermore, the limited governance arrangements of the existing EPR schemes only involve producers and importers, which reinforces their focus on waste collection and downcycling.

According to the researchers, it is therefore high time to “upgrade these systems by addressing the three major design flaws” they have identified.” How do they want to achieve this? The scientists have already developed a petition to engage the Nigerian government and the European Commission on electronic waste, hoping to hold producers responsible, and work towards better waste management
around the globe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not (necessarily) reflect REVOLVE's editorial stance.
Sören Bauer
President - Revolve Circular

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