EPR has been widely recognized and celebrated as being an effective way of making producers responsible for products (and their subsequent waste) they produce. On the one hand, based on a partnership between companies, municipalities and waste managers, it allows the financing of the public service of waste management by producers, while reinforcing its efficiency. On the other hand, it could generally encourage companies to enter a circular economy logic in the design of their products thanks to instruments like eco-modulation, thereby favoring products with a smaller environmental footprint.
So far so good, right? Unfortunately, not really. Due to the way EPR legislation is set up, combined with execution that is oftentimes flawed, the full potential of EPR has not yet been reached and producers are insufficiently held accountable for environmental damages they cause. Where EPR has been moderately successful in managing the end-of-life stages of products (better separate collection and recycling), it has not been effective in significantly changing the full lifecycle of products, i.e. creating more sustainable products and preventing waste.
While the latter is in line with the original academic definition of EPR, some might argue that this is also not the goal of EPR, but rather a sole focus on waste management. We would beg to differ, specially in a context where ten member states are at risk of missing the recycling targets for both municipal waste and total packaging waste. In this context, it’s essential to acknowledge that addressing the global waste crisis goes beyond solely focusing on waste management. Instead, it necessitates significant reductions and the phase-out of environmentally harmful products.
As a key component of the European Commission’s environmental and industrial policy package, EPR is one of the instruments to scale up the circular economy in Europe, with the ultimate aim of climate neutrality by 2050. It is a crucial policy tool to cover the costs of products at their end-of-life stage, meeting high recycling and product performance targets, but also to improve the management of resources by incorporating prevention and reuse targets, following the waste hierarchy principles.
In this perspective, the European Union should maximize the environmental effectiveness of EPR-schemes by tackling its current flaws and setting up a more ambitious EPR-framework. Moreover, coordinated EU-level action is necessary to avoid distortions to the single market, a risk which is likely to occur given the potential expansion of EPR to more product groups. In light of the ongoing Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation and Waste Framework Directive revisions, we outline the actions we deem needed to improve the tool of EPR, making it a game changer for circular economy goals.
To make EPR a more effective tool for a circular economy, we propose a number of concrete legislative measures :
Strengthen governance to improve transparency: To tackle the concentration of market power at producer responsibility organizations, all stakeholders, including producers, consumers, environmental groups, and waste management companies should be part of its governance set-up. Strategic responsibility is separated from operational responsibility.
Redefine PROs missions to go beyond waste management: we call on EU co-legislators to ensure that PROs cover the full costs, to better apply the polluter pays principle, to shift the financial responsibility from public authorities and taxpayers to producers in line with article 8a of the Waste Framework Directive, in order to maximise the impact of EPR.
Indeed, the mission of the PROs should be to address reduction, reuse and recycling in the circular economy, while playing a key role in the fight against climate change, the preservation of resources and biodiversity, and the reduction of carbon impact of products placed on the market.
Ensure harmonised principles on the fee structure and the eco-modulation: As underlined recently on a statement published by the PROs on Euractiv, ecomodulation has a key role to play, and we need to ensure harmonised principles on the fee structure and the eco-modulation These principles should be driven by the principles of the waste hierarchy to prioritize prevention, reduction, reusability and recyclability while avoiding undesirable side effects.
Address free riding especially the e-commerce stakeholders: It is critical that EU legislators ensure that there is a level playing field for producer responsibility including for imported goods sold online. Marketplaces and platforms should have distinct obligations to ensure that the traders they host comply with producer responsibility rules or have liable economic operators within the EU or EEA before a sale can be processed. Enforcement on non-EU retailers who sell directly to EU consumers should be increased, with the potential to block parcels and/or their vendors’ sites which demonstrate non-compliance
Recognise mandatory deposit return systems (DRS) as part of EPR policy: DRS have proven to be effective in increasing collection rates and reducing littering. We believe that DRS are therefore a crucial tool for well-functioning EPR-schemes.
Combine the potential of EPR with other economic policies: EPR can help to internalize the environmental costs of products and incentivize producers to design more sustainable products and waste management systems. However, EPR alone is not enough to achieve a circular economy. Taxation can be used to disincentivize the use of virgin resources and encourage the use of recycled materials. Fiscal instruments, such as lower VAT rates on products made from recycled materials, can also be used to promote the circular economy.
By making recycling, repair, or reuse more financially appealing, fiscal instruments can incentivise the adoption of sustainable waste management practices and reduce waste generation. The EU can play a key role in harmonizing fiscal instruments and setting minimum tax rates for a broader range of resource uses. This would help to create a level playing field for businesses and consumers across Europe.