Last year Vietnam became the first Southeast Asian country to implement an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme, which holds companies responsible for the full life cycle of their products from design and production through to consumption and disposal. The Philippines followed suit with the Extended Producer Responsibility Act which became law in July.
A growing number of countries around the world are adopting EPR to reduce waste in packaging, electronics and batteries. This approach shifts the responsibility of recycling to upstream producers and pushes them to incorporate environmental considerations into product design and develop avenues for consumers to return recyclable materials after use. Such legislation has been in place for specific products for many years in jurisdictions such as the EU, US, Canada, as well as parts of Asia and Africa. Many countries have seen successful outcomes, including Japan, which reduced its total amount of packaging by 16% from 1996 to 2009, and South Korea which reduced domestic waste produced per person from 1.3 to 1.04 kg per day. While EPR is just one of the policy mechanisms that has helped deliver such positive outcomes, enshrining sustainability and recyclability into the design and production process is a powerful tool for policymakers.
Europe is playing a pioneering role in the development of EPR with EU member states required to establish related policies within 2024. Across Asia, however, use of EPR is more uneven, with some countries adopting voluntary initiatives and others, including Thailand, only beginning to study the model for legislation.
EPR encourages a circular use of resources — in contrast to the traditional linear model where materials are extracted, processed, consumed and thrown away. This makes it a good tool for improving recycling rates and encouraging investment. Growing interest in EPR is also why The Incubation Network and Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) Asia developed Circularity Concepts, an online video learning series where the first module covers EPR in Asia.
Many Asian countries face challenges with implementing EPR, including under-developed waste collection infrastructure, low consumer awareness and segregation at source, and fragmented and opaque waste management and recycling value chains.
To overcome these issues, EPR models need to be developed so they meet local conditions and needs.
Policy while essential must be flexible
EPR has been most effective when implemented through formal regulation, rather than voluntary mechanisms. The benefit of legal regulation is that it can involve the whole value chain and lay out specific responsibilities, targets and standards of waste management that producers must meet. Fees can also be collected from producers, which are critical to support the management of the system and to fund consumer education.
However, EPR schemes are not one-size-fit-all; a suite of different policy instruments can be used for implementation — from setting recycling targets to imposing taxes related to the cost of recycling products. They must be relevant to local conditions and consider the needs of local stakeholders, while ensuring legal mandates can be enforced with proper monitoring.
Policies will also need to achieve the right balance of providing a national framework that addresses the complexity of the situation on the ground, while facilitating sufficient resourcing to make implementation a success with regulations that can be easily understood and enforced across the value chain.
Thailand provides a good example of such complexity. There are more than 7,000 local government organisations responsible for waste collection and disposal. The informal sector, a key element of the waste management infrastructure, comprises 750,000 to 1.5 million informal waste workers and up to 30,000 junk shops. A successful EPR policy should take into account the needs and roles of such diverse stakeholders across the value chain, rather than simply mandating financial responsibility to retailers and brands.
EPR regulations should also be designed in an inclusive and collaborative way to avoid disproportionately affecting producers who are less able to react, or consumers to whom the costs might be passed down. Small producers can potentially be exempted from having to pay fees to cover the recovery and disposal of their materials.
EPR must be supported by a broader strategy
An EPR regime helps to create value out of plastic, engaging producers to take responsibility for their products throughout their life cycle. However, its true power comes from being deployed as part of a broader range of integrated sustainability policies.
While mandatory EPR schemes are most effective, governments across the region could start by working with companies to introduce voluntary pilot programmes, or develop regulations for specific industries or products, such as batteries, as a first step toward implementing broader mandatory laws. For example, the Thailand Institute of Packaging and Recycling Management for Sustainable Environment under the Federation of Thai Industries in January started working with more than 50 stakeholders, including producers, retailers, recyclers, government and researchers, on an EPR pilot project in Chonburi province. These efforts can go a long way to garnering local insights and generating the buy-in that will help make the transition to mandatory EPR regulations successful.
At the end of the day, EPR is only one of several levers that can be pulled to improve waste management and recycling infrastructure — to be successful it needs to be part of a larger holistic strategy that involves multiple stakeholders and solutions.
Consumer education will be key to increasing awareness of sorting waste at the source and improving the quality of post-consumer recycling feedstock. Entrepreneurs and SMEs should also be engaged and supported to innovate new solutions and establish new markets.
Together, producers, enterprises and consumers alike can create systemic change to tackle the rampant throwaway culture and successfully harvest the value from our waste.
Written by Simon Baldwin who is the director of The Incubation Network and Global Head of Circularity for SecondMuse