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The Role of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) In Plastic And Packaging Waste Management

Updated: Nov 16, 2023


Packaging waste

It’s no secret that we’re facing a waste management crisis. Plastic is at the forefront because of the astounding volume we continue to create. In an effort to find a solution, many countries have adopted a version of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy.


At its core, EPR returns the responsibility to the suppliers, ensuring that whatever product or packaging they bring to market considers the entire lifecycle. This article unpacks this model in more detail, discusses the origins of EPR, its impact on a circular economy, and examples of EPR in action.


What is Extended Producer Responsibility?

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is an environmental policy approach that ensures producers are responsible for the entire lifecycle of the products they introduce on the market. This includes everything from design to manufacturing to disposal. Think of it like a “cradle-to-grave” approach to product management.


EPR doesn’t only apply to products, it’s equally pertinent for packaging. The model extends the obligation of waste reduction to the post-consumer phase. It’s all very well having a great product that ticks all the boxes, but your packaging must follow the same rigorous lifecycle approach. The whole EPR concept shifts the environmental responsibility upstream away from municipalities and regional waste authorities. The onus is on the actual producers, prioritizing closed-loop material management, which is ultimately more sustainable.


The Origins of EPR

The origins of EPR are attributed to Thomas Lindhqvist from Sweden. In 1990, on behalf of Lund University, he introduced the idea of manufacturers being responsible for their products to the Swedish Ministry of the Environment.


When Lindhqvist started his research, he aimed to ascertain how recycling and waste management systems could lead to policies promoting cleaner production. He expanded the definition in his 1992 report:


“Extended Producer Responsibility is an environmental protection strategy designed to decrease the total environmental impact from a product by making the manufacturer responsible for the entire lifecycle. This includes the take-back, recycling, and final disposal of the product.”


Lindhqvist’s vision for EPR was inspired by the successful deposit-return programs for single-use beverage packaging in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania and Norway. Whether it was soda or milk bottles, producers in the beverage industry had the fiduciary and managerial obligation to reduce costs.


The timing of his report was fortuitous, given that several European countries were initiating strategies to improve the end-of-life management of products which is why the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was born. The OECD establishes EPR policies for various countries.


For the last few decades, we’ve seen various EPR projects across Europe, South America, Australia, and Canada. US states are following suit with bills passed in Hawaii, Maryland, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Maine. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would bring EPR to every state.


EPR and Plastic

Plastic waste is projected to triple by 2060. As it stands, the US produces 42 million metric tons of plastic waste per year. A staggering 46% of this comes from packaging. A lot of this waste includes everyday items like plastic bags, bottles, tubs, pots, trays, shrink wrapping, bubble wrap, and rubbish bags. It can be overwhelming to wrap your head around just how much waste comes from packaging alone.


That’s where EPR extended producer responsibility comes in. If the model aims to reduce the environmental and economic burdens of waste management, plastic is undoubtedly a focal point. EPR policies have forced producers to implement improved waste collection processes and increased recycling rates. Moreover, they’ve encouraged producers to look at the entire lifecycle of a product from start to finish.


While older businesses will have to pivot and adjust their product rollout to become EPR compliant, new companies have the opportunity to create with the ultimate holistic view. From the start, they are encouraged to understand how the product is disposed of, implementing eco-friendly solutions from day one such as the use of more sustainable materials.


How Does Extended Producer Responsibility Work?

The EPR framework helps to keep plastic out of our environment, placing the economic burden of negative externalities back on the manufacturers. As it stands, recycling is not economically viable on a global scale and has also not always worked in practice with less than ten percent of plastic being recycled. The harsh reality is that it’s cheaper to produce virgin plastic than to recycle it. Don’t worry. It’s not all doom and gloom - EPR could fix this.


More often than not, successful EPR policies involve financial measures that hold manufacturers accountable. It usually means implementing take-back and recycling programs, collection points, and updated product designs that eliminate plastic altogether.


When done right, EPR could result in decreased emissions for companies as they rethink packaging and product development. Large-scale EPR compliance would mean reduced costs of post-consumer recycled materials, a critical component in driving the circular economy and zero-waste.


Extended Producer Responsibility Examples

Depending on the type of product you’re dealing with, EPR programs aren’t as complex as you would assume. Container take-back programs are a great example of simple yet effective EPR. In most cases, consumers pay a small deposit on the product, which is refunded when they return it. This incentivizes a new behavior that combats irresponsible waste management.


More complex products naturally require a more robust program. The fashion industry is an excellent example, with retailers like Patagonia leading the charge. All garments manufactured by the company are guaranteed durability, reducing the use of virgin resources to produce them. They’ve introduced trading in old gear for new, free garment repair and used clothing markets to embody their EPR mission to reduce waste.


Cruz Foam To The Rescue

Packaging is the most significant barrier to entry for successful EPR execution for many businesses. Polystyrene or styrofoam foam products have long been the default options if you’re shipping products. Now, thanks to Cruz Foam, there is an eco-friendly alternative that ticks all the EPR boxes.


It’s made from earth-digestible materials like chitin (the second most abundant biopolymer on earth), starches, and other natural ingredients to create something that breaks down in a matter of weeks. Better yet, it adds nutrition to the soil as it decomposes, feeding into the lifecycle ethos in every way.


The Takeaway

Extended Producer Responsibility is the driving force behind a circular economy. The fundamental shift in responsibility is crucial to long-term change, forcing businesses to re-evaluate their products and packaging from start to finish. With any luck, EPR will become relevant to every state in the US, ensuring that long-lasting change happens at scale.


Find out more about EPR and how Cruz Foam provides packaging alternatives that are EPR-approved. Get in touch with us today.


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