- Cristian Cuta Gómez
The Importance of EPR in the Years to Come and its Impact on the African Continent
One of the tools that the Circular Economy (CE) currently has is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The OECD defines this tool as an environmental policy approach in which the producer's responsibility towards a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of the product's life cycle. This policy is in line with the "polluter pays" principle because financial responsibility for end-of-life treatment of products shifts from taxpayers and municipalities to producers and ultimately to consumers.
Since the late 1980s/1990s, many countries have begun to adopt EPR systems for different types of waste, among which it is worth noting those of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), car tyres, and batteries of different types. Collection targets for computers, plastics, and textiles have also been included in some countries. A key success factor in some countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, or Mexico, is the integration of informal recyclers in this waste collection process. Recycling makes it possible to face the problem of waste generation with an inclusive perspective that integrates these people and encourages their registration through networks of second-hand object stores.
The producers are in charge of the financing and organisation of the end-of-life management of the covered products; among others, collection, transport, storage, processing, reuse, recovery, and/or final disposal. They also assume the costs of the differentiated collection of waste and its responsible management of the environment.
Wide Proposal of EPR Instruments for the Different Types of Products
There are four broad categories of EPR instruments, although they are sometimes combined.
Recall requirements imply that responsibility for the management of end-of-life products is assigned to producers/importers or distributors. This is often achieved by setting recycling and collection targets for a particular product or material.
Market-based instruments and economic instruments provide a financial incentive to implement EPRs and can take several forms, including:
Deposit Refund Systems: An initial payment (deposit) is paid when the product is purchased and that amount is partially or fully recovered by bringing the product in question to a specific location.
Disposal fees: Certain products are subject to fees at the time of purchase based on their estimated costs of collection and treatment.
Taxes for materials: Refers to taxes applied to virgin materials (or those that are difficult to recycle, that contain toxic substances, etc.) to encourage the use of secondary (recycled) or less toxic materials.
Combination taxes/subsidies on production: Tax paid by producers that are later used to subsidize waste treatment
Regulations and performance standards, such as imposing a minimum of recycled content, can encourage end-of-life product recall. If this is combined with a tax, these rules can strengthen incentives to redesign certain products.
Information-based tools are designed to provide indirect support to EPR programs by raising public awareness. These measures may include reporting requirements, labelling of products and components, communications to consumers about producer responsibility and waste separation, and information to recyclers about materials used in products. Of these instruments, recovery requirements are the most common (72% overall) and are sometimes combined with disposal fees. They also apply to a wide range of products.
Many nations have made progress in this area, especially those in Europe that have already incorporated regulations that aim to implement best practices in waste management to reduce trash output. But, if one considers that a large portion of the waste produced in Europe is sent in containers destined for Africa, the reality beyond the legislative system conceals an unethical aspect.
The Circular Innovation Lab is Currently Conducting a Study on Items Shipped for Reuse and EPR Fees
In our commitment to advancing the global Circular Economy transition, the Circular Innovation Lab is currently conducting a study on EPR policies in selected African countries for the European Environmental Bureau. The centre of the study is Africa since it is precisely there where most of the waste generated in Europe ends up (including batteries, textile products, vehicles and also electrical and electronic equipment).
Through this research, we are seeking to gain a preliminary understanding of the total volume of products shipped for reuse beyond the borders of the European Union and at the same time know how many of these flows are covered by EPR tools from the countries of origin. We are using publicly available information to extrapolate future trends and distinguish the benefits of extending the useful life of products against the potential impacts and risks of continuing poor waste management practices. Beyond documenting the problem of the flow of used products to Africa, we propose different alternatives that are worth exploring not only to improve people's quality of life but also to be able to comply with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Key Aspects we are Investigating in the Study
We are identifying the existing cases of mandatory or voluntary EPR along with the take-back schemes that some African countries have adopted. An example worth mentioning is the case of South Africa where it has been shown that certain voluntary activities for EPR can be successful in recycling even without any interference from the national or local government.
We are also carrying out an in-depth study analysis in those cases where there are EPR policies (both voluntary and mandatory) to improve the current situation not only in the African continent but also in other developing nations to adopt better practices.
In collaboration with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and several African partners who are aware of EPR implementation, the research project also incorporates a mapping of the legally obligatory or voluntary return/EPR schemes in Africa. With this collaborative effort, case studies from nations that are implementing environmental regulations are included as examples.
Why is Africa so Important to Consider?
According to Eurostat, during the year 2021, the European Union exported around 33 million tons of waste or used products only to countries outside the EU (that is a 77% increase from 2004). This volume included end-of-life products such as automobiles, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE), textiles, and batteries. Due to inadequate waste infrastructure and policies (supposedly covered by EPR fees) in receiving countries, a significant portion of those materials ends up being treated as waste and often landfilled or burned. According to a study by the United Nations University and the German Federal Ministry, a total of 60,000 tons of e-waste were exported to Nigeria every year, and 77% of that waste came from EU countries.
The massive amount of waste produced annually is an issue that affects communities and the environment severely. Systems for collecting and treating debris are limited, which makes the issue worse. Ensuring the proper collection and management of waste is essential to build a reuse and recycling system that allows for a circular economy. It is vital today more than ever to implement EPR schemes. But for this, international cooperation and the will of governments to adopt a credible and solid regulatory framework are essential. There is promise in regulatory matters, even though less than half of the African countries currently have this kind of regulation. However, its adoption will serve as a model for neighbouring nations with comparable economies. Our work at the Circular Innovation Lab on this topic is crucial in this regard.