Dr. Thomas Lindhquist is widely credited with creating the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in the 1990s. Ecoveritas recently spoke with Lindhquist to get his thoughts on the future of the concept and how it can be implemented at scale in the EU. The following is a summary of that discussion.
EPR is seen as a strategic approach that helps bring materials back into consumption and production systems at the end of useful product life. It was intended to empower producers to deal with the end-of-life treatment of discarded products by, among other measures, focusing on the upstream efforts, including product design. As a bolt-on, it was also intended to ease the waste management burden of governments.
Lindhquist believes potential Europe-wide EPR legislation could be in the pipeline and that it will prove an essential tool for policymakers. His intervention comes as the European Union works to improve policy harmonisation across Europe as part of the EU Green Deal. The ultimate goal of this approach is that all packaging is made reusable or recyclable by 2030.
“I think that we need the European Union to do something because so many decisions are made for member countries,” Lindquist told Ecoveritas. “I’m not sure how it is for the UK today, but it’s easy to imagine that some of that would flow over anyway. But for the members, definitely, because we need legislation in several areas, and we won’t get in on a national level.
“The aim is to get Brussels to accept this. We have a friend in Brussels who wants to have better legislation in this area in a big way. Now they have problems, and the 27 countries differ regarding the EPR area. They are happy that some countries are not that bad and they’ve tried to concentrate on the bad ones, maybe not succeeding. But I think we are now in a position to get good legislation.
“We need researchers who are helping come up with feasible ways of measuring what good recycling is. We need a much simpler way to determine how successful you are. There’s a lot to be done, but I think legislating from Brussels is the way we should go.”
Ecoveritas’ Global EPR Researcher Elena Rotzokou adds: “The need for change is obvious. The European packaging field is transforming rapidly as more and more governments recognise the long-term benefits of EPR.
“EPR encourages companies to enter a circular economy logic in the design of their products thanks to an eco-contribution that can be modulated, encouraging the use of appropriate packaging and recyclable materials. It also facilitates the sustainable financing of the public waste management service and can encourage citizens to sort their waste and turn to more responsible consumption patterns.
“Each value chain actor is thus invested in the good circularity of products and the reduction of their pollution.”
The concept of EPR has existed for more than 20 years and is practiced by corporates in the developed world.
Lindhquist introduced the idea of EPR in 1990 in a report to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. In subsequent reports prepared for the Ministry, the following definition of EPR emerged:
Extended Producer Responsibility is an environmental protection strategy to achieve a decreased total environmental impact from a product by making the product’s manufacturer responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product.
“When I try to look back, understand and evaluate, I think we have been amazingly good,” Lindhquist told Ecoveritas. “We have done things which I know many of the people in waste management, recycling and government thought was impossible to do in the later part of the eighties. And we did it very quickly.
“We got people to largely interact with it. We have created all the possibilities for taking new steps. We have convinced those big parts of the industry that they are responsible. Many more have bought it in the industry than you would imagine; they don’t do very much because it doesn’t pay off, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t accepted the idea that we have a responsibility. We have in many of the companies, who have the time and ability to think about such things, a belief that it doesn’t pay off, at least not today.”
Rotzokou added: ”To know we’re getting there, we need to measure circularity. This will help us develop a culture of innovation based on experience and data.
“We need scale, creativity, competitivity, innovation, visibility, and predictability for businesses. We are on the brink of tipping the scale toward waste reduction with Extended Producer Responsibility, but we need public policy. Without EPR, packaging collection and recycling are unlikely to be meaningfully scaled, and tens of millions of tons of packaging will end up in the environment yearly.”