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What is an EPR, and Does it Even Work?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 02/17/2020 | 4 Minute Read

Chances are, you already know what an EPR is—at least, you’ve likely encountered it before whether you realized it or not. Short for “extended producer responsibility,” you’ve seen it and used it with products like car batteries or old television sets. Manufacturers or producers of a particular product get tasked with managing the end of the life cycle for these items. This means they must handle the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products, and with that added responsibility, the overall hope is that they’ll put more consideration into reducing waste from the very beginning by designing a product and packaging with eco-friendliness in mind.

“Basically, it transfers the cost from either the city, town, or individual themselves who contract to have their waste or recycling picked up to the brand owner who actually puts the product on the market,” explained Victor Bell, US Managing Director of Environmental Packaging International/Lorax Compliance.

EPRs started in Europe—Sweden, to be exact, in 1990—and today they are mandatory in many countries there, as well as the Middle East. Places like Brazil and Colombia are starting to put EPRs into place, and China and India will have them in 2022. Our northern neighbor, Canada, has heaps of them (reports say at least 200 programs), but it just hasn’t quite caught on here in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

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“One of the difficult things with the United States is it would have to be passed on a state-by-state basis,” Victor said. “There’s also been very strong lobbying against it in the past, but we’re seeing a big change now.” 

As consumers became more eco-minded than ever before in recent years, big brands decided to make some big promises. By 2025, McDonald’s wants all its packaging to come from renewable, recycled, or certifiable sources. Starbucks has targets for 2030, including shifting to reusable packaging and cutting emissions. Other brands like Unilever, Aldi, and The Estée Lauder Companies have made similar promises—and as those dates close in, brands are trying to find ways to achieve their goals.

“The only way these major companies can make these commitments is if the infrastructure gets updated, as well as the cost of using it,” Victor stated. That’s where an EPR comes in.

An EPR can take many forms, from recycling to a buyback program, but one of the most significant movements in the world of ERP is called eco-modulation. Brands face higher fees on products that are more difficult to recycle or not as good for the environment, whether it be the material or the emissions needed to transport it. 

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For instance, in France—a country Victor called “the king of eco-modulation”—fees are in place for materials like PET packaging using mineral opacifiers, glass with a non-magnetic steel closing system, or reinforced cardboard. At the same time, there are discounts for packaging made from at least 50% recycled material, or switching to mono-materials which make recycling significantly easier.

“Even if you do advertising or put a certain recycling logo on it,” added Victor. “If you have an ad that includes ‘please recycle,’ then the brand can get another bonus.”

You can find a prime example of EPRs at work in Canada, particularly British Columbia, where the EPR only costs $14.55 US dollars per capita. “What they’ve done is they’ve taken over the recycling programs from cities and towns,” Victor explained. “All of the cost of collecting and managing that material is paid for by the fees, which is a pretty low per capita cost. They’ve, in turn, combined material processing facilities and infrastructure to make it more efficient.” 

Over 1,300 companies, from Apple Canada to Procter & Gamble, joined forces to create Recycle BC to carry out residential recycling. At their plants, brands can even test for new materials—such was the case with Keurig when it wanted to switch to a recyclable material for its pods, allowing them to be recycled across the province.

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Victor confessed it took British Columbia a while to reach this point, starting the EPR journey back in 2014. But according to the CSSA Report to Stewards 2019, the material recovery rate is 78.1% in British Columbia. It is the highest recycling rate in the country.

Will we see mandatory EPRs in place in the United States soon? In January 2020, the California Senate voted against an EPR for beverage companies, but Victor said interest is still growing there, as well as in places like Maine and New York. “We’re already seeing a number of the retailers and brand owners who were leery of EPR, and now they’re more open to embracing it,” he said. I think we're going to see brands leading this effort to move this forward because of their problem.”

“They know that unless something like this happens, they are not going to be able to meet their goals,” he added.