Today is a landmark day for packaging sustainability, with the start of the third meeting of the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which is aiming to develop international, legally-binding legislation on plastic pollution. What can we expect from this meeting, which is taking place in Nairobi from the 13th to the 19th of November? Dominic Hogg, director of Equanimator, tells us more.
Following the adoption of a Resolution of the United Nations Environment Assembly on 2 March 2022, an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) was convened whose objective is to develop an international legally binding instrument (henceforth, the Instrument) on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.
The INC issued a Zero Draft text in September 2023 in preparation for the third meeting of the INC (INC-3) taking place in Nairobi in November. It had previously prepared (in advance of the INC-2 meeting in Paris) an Options Paper which included, as one of the proposed measures, extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR is control measure 7 in Part II of the Zero Draft.
After more than a quarter of a century of being involved, in some form or other, with “producer responsibility”, I’ve rarely witnessed so much confusion as to what EPR is, or ‘should be’. That doesn’t feel like a good place from which to start a negotiation. Shouldn’t we first need to be clear about what EPR is?
Fundamentally, the area into which the ‘responsibility’ of producers is typically being extended under EPR is end-of-life management of the products and packaging that they sell: taking on that responsibility implies also paying for it, whether the producer does that itself, or funds others to discharge its responsibility.
Such a pared-back definition might be helpful in the context of an instrument negotiated against the backdrop of 2 billion or more people on the planet having no access to waste management services that are convenient and comprehensive. If there is no end-of-life management for a given plastic product or package, is it so surprising that plastic wastes find their way onto land, and into rivers and oceans?
The Zero Draft, under the headline ‘EPR’, wants such systems to be based on specific modalities, partly ‘to incentivize increased recyclability, promote higher recycling rates, and enhance the accountability of producers and importers for safe and environmentally sound management, of plastics and plastic products throughout their life cycle and across international supply chains.’
There’s an old rule – like others, perhaps, there to be broken – that for each objective, you probably need a distinct policy instrument: so if EPR is considered as a means to achieve all of the above, ‘it’ is probably more than one policy. But if it is more than one policy, then do those policies have to fall within ‘EPR’? Conversely, there’s a question of priority here: in a situation where there is, currently, no meaningful management of plastic (and other) wastes, what is it that really matters?
Should countries in such circumstances debate (for example) the pattern and amplitude of eco-modulation of fees, or should they focus on developing waste management services on a sound financial basis? Indeed, ‘eco-modulation’ of fees under EPR provides a good example of why ‘EPR’ might not offer the best policy mechanism.
Why could a country not, for example, enhance recyclability by using a system of environmental levies? These might have little or nothing to do with ‘EPR’ (producers already have ‘responsibility’ for the choice of packaging they use)?
In a world with inadequate waste management, I’d like to suggest that the instrument focuses on one thing: the role of producers in covering the full costs of management of plastic products/packages at the end of their life.
There is more than one way in which to do that: not all of them are based on replication of the best-performing EPR schemes in Europe. If we focus on this matter, we simplify discussion around the concept: there’s a great deal of confusion as to what EPR is, or should be, or can be, with different players holding different views.
I have my doubts that the nigh-on 200 Member nations of the UN will all want to do this in the same way. Differences in political and economic structures make that unlikely, and a number of countries already with functional systems may find them poorly aligned with the content of an instrument if it tries to include too broad a perspective as to how EPR should look.
If we focus on cost recovery, we can also consider what else is relevant, not necessarily as part of EPR. Different means to achieve cost recovery can be considered. The instrument could set out the scope of products and packaging to which Parties were required/expected to apply the cost recovery principle.
The breadth of scope of the costs to be covered could also be identified – I would hope that scope would be broad, covering management of stuff that is not recycled, including the costs of clearing up litter. Examples could be given of ways of identifying those costs.
Consideration would need to be given as to how to ensure funds are spent efficiently, including how decisions about what and where capital equipment is required, and how it is procured. Means of auditing – possibly international ones - could be considered to ensure the funds generated from producers are used for the intended purposes.
These decisions would ideally be taken in the context of considerations about what a decent and convenient waste management service might look like. Balkanising ‘plastic waste’ (or EPR foir plastics) would be an inefficient solution to collecting and managing plastic waste, not to mention impossible in the case of all those products in which plastics are found alongside other materials.
Minimum service standards for collection ought to be set to ensure that the system was capable of delivering high recycling rates. These are not matters that need to be set in a law on EPR: they might equally be set in legislation on waste, or local government, for example.
I’ve not mentioned the term ‘producer responsibility organisation’, or PRO, or compliance scheme. Whatever their positive role in some circumstances, they are not a necessity (some countries already have EPR systems without PROs).
If Parties wish to develop a scheme where there is a role for one or more PRO, they should be free to do so. But let’s start from what really matters, and an underlying principle that is simple to comprehend. We can demystify EPR by re-badging it as ‘Ensuring producers cover the costs of managing their (plastic) waste’, or similar.
It would be tragic if what will be a critical source of funding to keep plastics from flowing to rivers and seas was put in the ‘too difficult’ box: we need to minimise the extent of mismanagement of plastics, and without funding from producers, that becomes less likely, and will almost certainly take far longer to achieve.
Dr Dominic Hogg of Equanimator is working alongside Reloop, an international non-profit organisation leading on the development of a circular economy, in developing perspectives on the INC discussions – further submissions can be found at https://www.reloopplatform.org/un-legally-binding-instrument-on-plastic-waste/
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