Cradle-to-cradle manufacturing is the Holy Grail for advocates of sustainable manufacturing and packaging, and so-called extended producer responsibility (EPR) is the way to get there, according to them.
In true EPR, manufacturers and brand owners produce goods and ship them to market, and are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging (the idea being that their having to pay for it is the best incentive for them to eliminate waste and design for reuse and recycling).
Although Canada is a leader in this area — ahead of the United States but behind some European jurisdictions — most programs so far (for things like scrap tires, used oil, waste electronics, etc.) have fallen short of the true EPR mark, and are really “product stewardship” schemes that virtually absolve producers from having to do much different than the status quo. How so? In most cases consumers pay an “eco fee” of some kind that ends up in the hands of an arms-length stewardship organization that represents the collective interests of the manufacturers. This body pays contractors to manage the material, but there’s little incentive for producers to become more “eco efficient” as they’re not really being hit in the pocketbook. Worse, they are contracting out their liability.
The stewardship schemes have achieved some positive results diverting materials from disposal. On the negative side, some of the systems have engaged in cartel-like activities, squelching competition among contractors, picking limited suppliers and setting (some might say “fixing”) prices. Sometimes the stewardship plans submitted to government are reminiscent of central planning exercises in socialist economies (with similar results).
So it’s a relief to see some recent developments in Quebec and Ontario where producers are taking more direct responsibility for their goods at end-of-life. We must hope these become models for new and improved EPR programs for other materials.
The first concerns pesticide and fertilizer containers. On November 6 the Government of Quebec provided with an exemption to manufacturers of commercial pesticide and fertilizer containers, as long as they become a member in good standing with CleanFARMS/AgriRÉCUP — an independent not-for-profit stewardship body for managing agricultural waste materials.
“This really gives agriculture its own opportunity to determine its destiny for stewardship,” says Barry Friesen, general manager of CleanFARMS/AgriRÉCUP.
The organization offers an empty pesticide and fertilizer container recycling program across Canada and Quebec farmers can continue to participate by returning their triple-rinsed containers to retail collection sites across the province. (Containers are recycled into materials like farm drainage tile.) The group is working with the Quebec government and the agricultural community to develop programs to manage additional agricultural wastes like seed bags, crop protection bags and bale wrap.
(It’s worth mentioning that the next step for this group is to demonstrate that it’s collecting all the empty containers generated, not just a certain tonnage voluntarily dropped off.)
The second development concerns pharmaceuticals and sharps.
On October 1, 2012, Ontario’s environment ministry brought into force a regulation under the 40-year-old Environmental Protection Act that puts end-of-life management of pharmaceutical waste and sharps in a very different direction than the stewardship programs that have typically been established under the province’s 10-year-old Waste Diversion Act.
Simply put, the regulation uses the older statute to put producers of these kinds of wastes in charge of creating their own systems to properly manage the materials, without the requirement of submitting a stewardship plan to the government, or Waste Diversion Ontario (the agency that normally vets these things).
Best of all, the regulation makes the producers individually responsible for managing their wastes.
After a controversy in 2010 over eco fees levied on an expanded range of household hazardous waste materials, the government had been covering the costs of pharmaceutical waste and sharps via payments to Stewardship Ontario (which manages other programs).
According to an article in EnviroNews (a publication of the Canadian Bar Association) by the Corporate Policy Group’s Usman Valiante (a specialist in stewardship issues), the environment ministry has now “assigned the responsibility to individual producers of those materials under the EPA.”
“Furthermore,” Valiante writes, “… unlike the WDA, the regulation does not require the government to delve into how producers finance their obligations nor does it require producers to develop methodologies for setting fees — commercial arrangements are left to producers and service providers to negotiate amongst themselves through conventional free-market transactions.”
In the years ahead the end-of-life management of more materials may be managed via this kind of regulation, and it’s advisable that producers stay abreast of developments or even attempt to get ahead of the curve be developing their own individual EPR programs. HMM
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org