09/25/18
Editorial Insights
sourcing

The underlying problem with EPR and sustainability

    

Image ©: Deposit Photos

We recently saw an article about an Extended Producer Reliability (EPR) program being piloted in Canada and we see this as one of the only solutions available that is moving us toward a circular economy. But, we have to ask: why do good changes bring out the worst in us? Gaining true circular thinking can only come by accepting that end-of-life costs are an integral part of the product lifespan, not an add-on that nobody wants to pay for.

Awkward steps toward a better economy

Canada may just be piloting this program, but the US has been rolling out EPR for a few decades now. And, while this is moving our economy in the right direction, the larger story of how effective it is at turning our economy to circular is still left untold.

Manufacturers are required by the local government to take in a percentage of the product weight they sell in that state each year—pound for pound and irrespective to any brand. We mentioned this in a recent post, but the cost of manufacturers taking back products is eventually, and perhaps inevitably, rolled back to the consumer through a slight rise in that manufacturers’ pricing. And, while EPR is one of the only country-wide mechanisms to force consumers to pay this bill, finding a way to fully internalize of end-of-life costs within the manufacturing process is critical to make our consumption more sustainable.  

Of course, in our humble opinion, we as consumers should be more responsible for our consumption and pay for the recycling outright. This would create a better environment for recyclers to use best practices as well as reduce our overall consumption. After all, when push comes to shove, extended use and reuse of devices is cheaper than paying for recycling.

But consumers will continue to purchase the latest products and, as the global population continues to increase, the amount they consume will be even more significant than it is today. EPR takes a first step in getting manufacturers to meet consumers on both ends of the product lifespan. This not only bolsters the brand relationship, but it captures back product before it reaches the landfill.

The fly in the EPR ointment

Where the plan fails, however, can be seen with how manufacturers handle this opportunity. In a word, it’s unsustainable. To begin with, many manufacturers claim the smallest portion of product to meet the EPR requirements. This is only a fraction of what they continue to pour into the consumer stream. Secondly, EPR favors larger recyclers as OEMs flex their buying power. These manufacturers seek to drive the costs of recycling to as low as possible, thereby preserving overall profits, which makes it nearly impossible to use best practices when recycling. And poor recycling is, in many ways, worse than not recycling at all.  

In the same way as any remedy, there is always room for improvement. For instance, there are other implements in place to help make manufacturers more culpable for their actions, such as landfill restrictions, fees, and various taxes. Brand pressures also push manufacturers to action through their ESG (environmental, social, and governance) programs. But, for many manufacturers, EPR is less a motivator and more an obstacle to sidestep.

The economics of a circular economy

As its name implies, economic conversations always boil down to whether or not there is profitability. Consumers should shoulder the cost--as we are the funding party, but general consumer polls show the majority of us want to be green only so long as it doesn't cost more.

Because responsibility is obscured, EPR imposes the costs to manufacturers in a way that lacks profitability, which is why those costs are inevitably passed down to us. And, with all these examples, the emphasis is on the end-of-life cost being something extra tagged on to our devices, rather than what it really is: an integral part of the product.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, becoming truly sustainable is a mindset shift. Instead of pushing end-of-life costs upstream, take ownership of the waste your consumption produces and find a way to minimize it. Whether through recycling, reusing, or donating those devices, your gadgets have more to give.

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