Extended producer responsibility needs a bottom-up approach

Amid a backdrop of potential delays in the UK's Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) reforms, Thomas Lindhqvist, the originator of the EPR concept, brings clarity and insight to this complex topic in a conversation with Andrew McCaffery, Ecoveritas' Chief Strategy Officer. From the critical need for strong leadership to a call for a recycling revolution, and discussions on cost implications, Lindhqvist shares his expert perspective. 

Thomas Lindhqvist Extended Producer ResponsibilityAs we see emerging headlines of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reportedly contemplating a delay in the implementation of extended producer responsibility (EPR) reforms slated for April 2024, the significance of the EPR concept is thrown into sharp relief. This delay, intended to offset rising consumer costs, and the recent industry-wide call for an extension on its implementation, put the focus squarely on EPR – an environmental policy approach to recycling that holds producers accountable for the environmental impacts of their products. However, to understand the implications and nuances of EPR, one must turn to the experts – one of whom is Thomas Lindhqvist, the originator of the EPR concept itself.

In a conversation with Andrew McCaffery, Ecoveritas' Chief Strategy Officer, Lindhqvist underscored the necessity for a strategic leader in guiding the implementation of EPR. “The UK must understand that you need someone who's steering this. Someone who has formalism. Some power, or somebody who says the industry wants this, local authorities want this, but we have some goals, which is a reasonable way of achieving those," he highlighted. According to Lindhqvist, without such a leader providing clear direction and goals, the implementation of EPR may be fraught with problems.

Lindhqvist also sheds light on the critical need for a shift in our approach to recycling. In his view, a future-proof system should be able to generate more valuable materials through recycling, underlining the importance of improving the quality of recycled materials.

“Recycling must be able to generate more valuable materials," he asserts. In particular, Lindhqvist points out the deficiencies in the current recycling methods for plastic and metal, stating that, with the exception of a few items like PET bottles, most recycled materials are often of too poor quality to be beneficial for society.

Obstacles to delivering extended producer repsonsbility

Cost implications are a recurrent theme in the discussions surrounding EPR. Lindhqvist challenges the narrow focus on efficiency by professional economists, suggesting that a broader perspective is necessary. “If you start to look at the bigger scale, I think [EPR] is still very cheap for people, and in European countries, we are not spending a lot of money on this." He explains that much of the cost associated with waste management is tied to collection, and these costs need not be as inflated as they often are.

As the debate on the implementation of EPR in the UK continues, the insights shared by Lindhqvist present a valuable contribution. It's clear that strong leadership, a revolution in recycling, and a nuanced understanding of cost implications are just the beginning of this complex conversation.

Lindhqvist's comments also reveal interesting perspectives on the public's attitude towards EPR. He notes a significant gap between the public's enthusiasm for recycling and the calculated economic feasibility often put forward by economists. Lindhqvist asserts that most people understand the environmental impact of waste management and express a willingness to recycle more. This sentiment, he suggests, is often at odds with economic calculations deeming increased recycling as not cost-effective. He also points to the importance of early education in shaping attitudes towards recycling and waste management, hinting at a potential generational shift in attitude towards EPR.

Contrary to some narratives suggesting industry-wide resistance to EPR, Lindhqvist proposes a different perspective. He argues that many larger corporations are not overly concerned about EPR implementation. This, he explains, is due to the fact that the costs associated with EPR are generally not prohibitive. However, Lindhqvist also points out that these corporations are often not the ones publicly discussing EPR, leading to a perception of resistance that may not be entirely accurate. This understanding offers a refreshing look at the relationship between the industry and EPR, hinting at the potential for greater cooperation than often assumed.

The need for bottom-up pressure

Lindhqvist sees significant potential in municipal governments to drive EPR forward. He advocates for a grassroots, or 'bottom-up', approach where local authorities leverage their power to push for EPR implementation. This approach, he explains, is especially crucial when national governments are reluctant to take decisive action. However, Lindhqvist also acknowledges the challenges involved, suggesting that municipal authorities are not typically known for being innovative when it's not their primary task.

Despite these challenges, Lindhqvist emphasises the potential benefits of this approach. He suggests that it provides an opportunity for innovation, particularly when local businesses are engaged in the process. Moreover, Lindhqvist acknowledges that while producers may not naturally be inclined to drive the development of EPR, they might respond to the pressure and opportunities presented by engaged municipal governments.

Together, these insights paint a multifaceted picture of the attitudes towards and implications of EPR from the public, the industry, and local government perspectives. As Lindhqvist highlights, navigating the complexities of EPR requires a nuanced understanding and collaborative action from all these stakeholders.

In shedding light on the evolution of EPR, Lindhqvist notes the German experience as a critical case study. The country’s transition to EPR was fraught with challenges – particularly related to waste management companies. He highlights the detrimental effects of poorly designed contracts and inefficient mechanisms for collecting funds, which led to complications in the implementation of EPR policies. Such difficulties underscore the importance of planning and foresight, reinforcing the need for thorough preparation and streamlined operational procedures in any country considering similar EPR reforms.

The Future of EPR in the UK

As Lindhqvist casts an analytical eye over the UK's journey toward EPR, he readily acknowledges the unique set of characteristics and challenges that the nation presents. "The UK is wrestling with its post-Brexit identity, navigating evolving trade relations, and addressing domestic pressures to ramp up sustainability efforts and achieve environmental targets. These are unique circumstances that will indubitably have a significant influence on EPR policy directions," he explains.

In particular, Lindhqvist identifies how these singular factors could shape the trajectory of EPR within the UK. "The UK's international trade relationships could impact the approach to EPR, especially given the transboundary nature of waste and recyclable materials. Likewise, domestic market conditions, the regulatory environment, and public sentiment toward sustainability could mould the country's EPR strategy," he adds.

A key aspect of this strategy, as Lindhqvist emphasises, is the development of an EPR framework that drives producers to continually improve their products and services. "EPR should not solely be about holding producers accountable for the end-of-life management of their products," he says. "It should also provide incentives for them to innovate for greater sustainability from the onset. This dual-focus approach, I believe, is integral to a successful EPR strategy."

He continues, "We need to design an EPR system that not only imposes obligations but also sparks innovation. It involves crafting regulations and incentives that encourage companies to explore more sustainable materials, manufacturing processes, and product designs. A successful EPR program should foster a climate that promotes environmental responsibility while concurrently stimulating economic growth."

Lindhqvist's vision for the UK does not involve a sudden or drastic transformation. Instead, he envisages a more deliberate and nuanced shift towards EPR. "It's about creating an EPR system that aligns with the UK's unique circumstances, weaving the policy seamlessly into the nation's economic, environmental, and political fabric," he concludes. "This, I believe, is the pathway to a truly sustainable and effective EPR policy in the UK."

In reflecting on the journey of EPR and the road ahead, Lindhqvist shares a vision of a slow but determined revolution in the field. He acknowledges that the transformation won’t happen overnight and that careful attention must be paid to developing effective regulations and standards. He also reminds us that EPR is an evolving concept that requires constant reassessment and recalibration to meet the changing needs of society and the environment.