The Extended Producer Responsibility in the EU: from fragmentation to harmonisation

The world is increasingly focused on environmental questions, pushing governments and industries to embrace sustainable practices. In the European Union, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes play a key role in this effort. This blog post explores Extended Producer Responsibility, the challenges of a fragmented EPR framework in the EU and upcoming developments with the new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). Finally, RPE presents its perspective on EPR harmonisation.

Understanding the Extended Producer Responsibility

    The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines EPR as an environmental policy mechanism that extends a producer’s accountability for a product beyond its manufacturing phase into its post-consumer lifecycle. EPR policies are characterised by:

    1. A shift in responsibility: This involves transferring financial or operational burdens from consumers and municipalities onto producers. While producers bear the primary responsibility, EPR schemes often incorporate the participation of various stakeholders such as consumers, retailers, and governmental entities to collectively achieve environmental objectives.
    2. An incentive to eco-friendly design: EPR initiatives incentivise producers to prioritise eco-friendly design principles. By providing tangible benefits for environmentally conscious product design, producers are motivated to minimise negative environmental impacts across the entire lifecycle of their products.

    An EPR scheme can take the form of various measures including a collection fee for products, collection rate targets, and minimum content recycled materials. Moreover, they extend their scope to a wide variety of product categories such as packaging, batteries, electronics, furniture, and chemicals.

    Ultimately, the overarching goal of the EPR is to actively engage producers in adopting sustainable practices, thereby reducing the environmental footprint associated with their products and packaging materials. By embracing the principles of the circular economy, EPR schemes encourage producers to adopt a holistic approach that encompasses not only the production phase but also the disposal, recycling, and potential reuse of their products.

    Challenges of fragmented EPR frameworks in the EU

    The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (1994) mandated EU Member States to establish systems for consumers to return and recycle used packaging to meet its recycling goals by 2024.

    Thus, the EU imposes the legal obligation of meeting the recovery and recycling targets on Member States. However, national governments may, and often do, delegate this legal obligation to producers/importers through the setting of EPR schemes.

    The EPR schemes in the European Union indeed face a significant challenge due to fragmentation across Member States. While the concept is commendable in promoting environmental sustainability and encouraging manufacturers to adopt eco-friendly practices, the lack of harmonisation across EU Member States poses several challenges:

    1. Complexity for businesses: With each Member State having its own EPR scheme, businesses operating across borders face a complex web of regulations. This complexity increases compliance costs and administrative burdens for companies.
    2. Barriers to market access: The fragmented nature of EPR schemes can act as a barrier to market access, particularly for companies seeking to expand their operations across the EU.
    3. Impact on circular economy goals: The fragmented EPR landscape hinders the transition to a circular economy, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and waste is minimised. A harmonised approach to EPR could facilitate the development of closed-loop systems, promoting resource efficiency and reducing environmental footprint.
    4. Potential for greenwashing: Inconsistencies in EPR schemes may also create opportunities for greenwashing, where companies exploit variations in regulations to portray themselves as more environmentally responsible than they are. A standardised approach to EPR could enhance transparency and accountability.

    Harmonising EPR regulations across the EU: Implications of the PPWR

    With the new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), specific elements of the EPR will also be standardised across all Member States, including:

    • the establishment of defining terms for manufacturer,’ ‘importer,’ ‘producer,’ ‘economic operator,’ ‘supplier,’ and ‘authorised representative’ and outlining their respective obligations;
    • the modulation of financial contributions, which will be based on recyclability and recycled plastic content to align with the new packaging design requirements;
    • the implementation of symbols/labelling requirements for packaging included in the relevant accredited EPR system in national territories;
    • the designation of one or more competent authorities in Member States to monitor and verify compliance of producers under EPR;
    • the establishment of a register of producers at the national level, which shall provide links to other national registers of producers’ websites to facilitate the registration of producers or authorised representatives for the EPR.

    The European Commission would publish implementing acts establishing the format for registration in, and reporting to, the register, the specific data required to be reported, and the packaging and material types to be reported. The PPWR would additionally require ‘producers’ to either become members of national producer responsibility organisations or, in the alternative, fulfil producer responsibility obligations individually. These modifications would enter into force no earlier than 2027.

    RPE’s perspective on EPR harmonisation

    As frontrunners in promoting reuse and circular packaging systems, RPE welcomes an EPR harmonisation, as it aims to further reduce the amount of produced packaging, reduce the amount of packaging going to landfills and increase the amount of recycled packaging waste, thus creating a full circular economy in the EU.

    RPE welcomes all the efforts to reduce plastic waste but stresses that to effectively achieve the environmental objectives of EPR obligations and harmonisation, it is essential that the new requirements not only discourage waste generation through fees and administrative burdens but also actively encourage and fiscally reward the adoption of eco-friendly packaging alternatives.

    By providing such incentives, companies would be encouraged to embrace sustainable (transport) packaging options for their products, thereby facilitating a genuine transition towards a full circular economy in the EU.

    Conclusion

    EPR schemes represent a shift in environmental policy, setting an obligation for producers to extend their accountability beyond the manufacturing stage. Within the EU, efforts to harmonise EPR faced challenges with fragmentation, but have the potential for advancing a circular economy.

    As the EU finalises the PPWR, RPE advocates for a balance between regulatory rigour and incentivising sustainability.