Extended Producer Responsibility; The new EPR guidelines: Hits and missesWritten by Divya Tiwari
While the amended EIA draft has been grabbing headlines, another critical environment related guideline had been out for feedback in July 2020 which was the much-awaited framework of EPR for plastic waste management. Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR concept was adopted by the government in the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016, the draft guidelines are finally out after 4 years.
Thomas Lindhqvist who had coined the term Extended Producer Responsibility in the year 1990 defined it as: EPR is an environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact from a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product. The Extended Producer Responsibility is implemented through administrative, economic and informative instruments. The composition of these instruments determines the precise form of the Extended Producer Responsibility.
The core objective of EPR framework must be a decreased total environmental impact from a product. EPR is not meant for transferring the local administration’s responsibility of waste collection and disposal to product manufacturers. In the current framework, while words like circularity have been mentioned, the compliance parameters focus only on waste collection and disposal. This is the most fundamental flaw with the proposed framework.
The guidelines do not differentiate between various end of life approaches. Whether an item is reused, recycled or burnt for energy recovery, the policy treats all these options equanimously. There is a vast difference between the environmental foot print of each of these end of life actions and the policy fails to establish this. If the policy gave some bonus points for reuse and negative points for waste burning technologies, the producers would be encouraged to invest in designing products and services with the goal of reuse and recycling. Another way to drive this could be through taxation based on the environmental footprint of the product and packaging basis lifecycle approach.
Green rating for products and packaging would encourage responsible consumption. The proposed framework does not include any of these economic and informative instruments and focusses only on an administrative instrument that of transferring the responsibility of waste collection and disposal onto producers.
This mode of intervention demands significant monitoring of waste collected and processed and hence the bulk of the framework is focussed on IT systems and different agencies that would be involved in monitoring. It is recommended to setup an independent auditing agency that would certify every kg recycled/processed by end destination. No details have been provided on the nature of this agency, what would be the cost of this close monitoring and how would it get funded. Another key body mentioned in the framework is called Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) Advisory Committee that would decide all targets and monitor compliance.
Monitoring waste collection and processing is inherently very challenging because for most plastic categories, it is cheaper to dump than to recover. Further, as waste needs to be monitored 24 hrs, the framework seems to suggest that IT systems like material traceability based on block chain would be able to help closely monitor waste movement and track illegal waste dumping. However, these technologies are either in a nascent stage and are completely dependent on manual data, or the hardware for automatic data capture is too expensive and not efficient enough. EPR Models: The framework allows PIBo (Producer, Importer, Brand Owner) to choose from three different EPR models:
a) Small PIBos to contribute a FEE to a central corpus (Note: small and large has not been defined in the framework);
b) Large PIBos can partner with PRO or
c) Meet compliance through direct credit purchase from recyclers/end processors.
Both (a) which is Fee base model and (c) the Direct Credit Purchase model go against the philosophy of EPR. They are both transactional in nature and would discourage long-term investment by the producers towards better products and packaging or infrastructure towards collection and recycling. The direct credit purchase from recyclers and end processors is tricky. Plastic recycling happens on a smaller scale and it would be impossible to monitor fraud recycling facilities issuing fake recycling certificates on a daily basis. EPR Models that are transactional in nature will rely heavily on close monitoring by government agencies which leads to ‘compliance’ on paper.
The challenge with PRO model is when the PRO entity has been exclusively created by the producers only for the purpose of EPR compliance. It is quite likely that such a body would toe the line of the producers and will be unable to serve the purpose of being an independent body enabling and reporting EPR compliance by producers.
By and large it appears that the responsibility of EPR has been assigned to PIBos. But how would it be split across the Producer, Importer and Brand owner has not been spelled out. It would be best to assign the EPR responsibility to producers of packaging raw material, they can further share the burden with the brand owners down the supply chain. Assigning and monitoring EPR producer level would make better sense because:
- Packaging raw material is typically produced by a few large players, monitoring them is much easier than monitoring 100s brand owners
- There is a large amount of non-braded plastic packaging e.g. food containers used by restaurants for food delivery etc.; packing by neighbourhood kirana store etc. all of it would be left out of the preview of EPR if implemented at the brand owner level
- With EPR implementation, slowly the informal recyclers would come into the fold as they would need to get registered. EPR responsibility can then be extended to them as well as they are producers of recycled raw material.
The plastic waste management rules that introduced EPR in plastic came in 2016, the industry got a clear signal to start work on EPR. The implementation plan proposed in the framework, is unjustifiably long drawn. The penalties for non-compliance have not been spelled out in the framework. The framework is acknowledging that the cost of EPR compliance would depend on the type of plastic and packaging but is leaving the per kg fee to be decided by market forces.
The positive aspects of the framework:
While there are serious issues with the framework, there are some positives:
Compliance is brand and geography neutral which means a producer can meet its commitment from any region and collecting any brand’s similar type of product or packaging. A clear categorization of types of product and packaging must be developed. It's good that state level interference has been reduced; with each state dictating their own regulations, companies could not adopt a uniform policy.
Creation of a single national registry to enlist all stakeholders such as all PIBO, PROs, Recyclers and Waste processors. This is good as the recycling and waste sector is largely informal, leading to severe manpower exploitation and flouting of safety, environment and labour norms. This repository should be made public along with the data on year EPR compliance performance of each of the producers. This would help bring transparency and improve public engagement with the issue.
The framework clearly states that the ULBs need to manage primary collection and implement source segregation and IEC. Municipalities are best placed to handle primary collection and implement and monitor source segregation, while producers provide for the cost of secondary collection and end of life cost.
While the framework talks about classifying PROs in different groups based on years of experience but the relevance of this classification has not been discussed. It would help if the framework puts a restriction of the kind such that about 60% of EPR compliance has to be through class A PROs, 30% through class B and 10% through class C. This would encourage entrepreneurship while discouraging fly by night, fraud operators. Further a performance rating could also be introduced for PROs based on their compliance on labour, safety and environment norms.
To conclude, while the framework has brought in more clarity on the distribution of responsibility amongst various actors, it would not be able to drive the core idea of EPR which is designing and producing products and packaging with lower environment foot print. It is relying heavily on close monitoring of each kg of plastic collected and recycled which is humanly or technologically not possible. The framework must be designed in a manner that requires minimal monitoring and whatever monitoring is done it must be fool proof.
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