What are Extended Producer Responsibility Programs?

Successful EPR programs increase recycling rates through infrastructure investment and allow material producers to be an integral part of program design.


Successful EPR programs increase recycling rates through infrastructure investment and allow material producers to be an integral part of program design.

When properly planned and executed, Extended Producer Responsibility programs can be a powerful tool to address plastic waste. But to be successful, they need to increase recycling rates through infrastructure investment and allow material producers to be an integral part of program design and execution.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a tool that policymakers use to require producers to manage the entire life cycle of the products they manufacture. EPR programs are designed to fund the recovery, reuse, and end-of-life processes of the products producers create, especially in terms of hard-to-recycle goods.

What is the Goal of EPR Programs?

Correctly set up EPR programs do two things: create accountability through set targets and goals for recycling rates and ensure success by funding the necessary infrastructure to make that happen.

First, setting targets, either for collection or recycling, and defining how to measure desired outcomes, ensures the goals sought in the policy are achieved.  Second, funds from an EPR program should be focused toward improvements and expansions of the infrastructure required to achieve waste reduction goals. This could happen at a local, state, or even regional level. Raising funds through EPR fees charged to producers should not be viewed as the goal, but as a means to achieve the goal of a more circular economy.

While EPR can be very effective at reducing waste and ensuring the highest and best use of all products, tax and spend policies that simply fund ongoing waste collection operations and don’t actually reduce waste or create the necessary investment in recycling infrastructure are mislabeled as “EPR.” Some policies that have been enacted prioritize the collection of recyclable material and fail to invest in the improvements necessary to hit recycling rate targets. This trap does not support solutions to plastic waste and can instead be detrimental.

While a well-crafted EPR system is mostly focused on the management of the end of a product’s lifecycle, these policies can also encourage manufacturers to innovate and design products to be more easily recovered, recycled, and reused. This design component can be key to ensuring that products become more sustainable.

Where and When Did EPR Start?

EPR has been around for the last three decades, making its debut in Europe in the 1990’s. Hard-to-recycle products, like tires, were among the first classified as ideal EPR candidates. Today, successful EPR policies have become commonplace in several industries. In the healthcare and medical industries, needles and other sharps are collected and returned to producers to be properly disposed of. Mattresses and some appliances are also collected and disposed of by the companies that manufacture them.

Current EPR Proposals

On the other hand, poorly designed EPR policies can be ineffective and inefficient, failing to boost recycling rates while raising costs for consumers. Recent research on New York’s proposed packaging “EPR” legislation found that the policy could cost $803.2 million annually, increasing costs for the average family of four in the state by up to $57 per month, without any proof of how it would actually boost recycling rates. Higher costs would disproportionately impact low-income families, leading to additional issues with the legislation. In Germany, “EPR” legislation focused on plastic packaging failed to increase recycling rates. These policies are not effective because they lack directives for funds raised by the program to be reinvested into recycling infrastructure. Instead, they levy a new tax that will ultimately be paid for by the consumer without improving the recycling system.

While EPR can be helpful for some hard-to-recycle products, these policies must correctly reinvest in recycling systems and create cost sharing between government and industry. Without a mechanism to ensure this, costs can be passed on to the consumer and no real solution will come to fruition.

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