Producer responsibility: a new era for eco design

As we look towards the future of the WEEE Directive and the transition to a circular economy Bruno Zago argues the case for individual producer responsibility

The original vision that the architects of extended producer responsibility had, along with the policy makers that created the WEEE Directive, was a policy instrument that would improve the environmental performance of WEEE throughout its life cycle and drive the eco design of products.

Producer responsibility was aimed at delivering sustainable development by making producers responsible for the end of life management of their products, a concept known as individual producer responsibility (IPR).

Through IPR each producer is responsible for financing the end-of-life costs of their own-branded products. This enables end-of-life costs to be fed back to the individual producer. The idea was that producers would focus on design for recycling and design for disassembly and thereby reduce their costs. In addition by getting their individual products back, producers can close the loop and build a circular economy.

The opportunities created by IPR are huge. According to research undertaken by McKinseys for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the potential of the circular economy is up to USD 630bn per annum. However many countries have failed to transpose or implement IPR, meaning that there are no incentives within the WEEE Directive for producers to focus on eco design and the economic opportunities of IPR are lost.

Analysis has shown that up to 10 member states including the UK have omitted individual producer responsibility in transposing the WEEE Directive into their national law. Instead, the legislation in these countries makes producers collectively responsible according to their market share, making it impossible to implement IPR.

Collective producer responsibility does not provide an incentive to a producer to design products to be easier to recycle, since costs are based on market share and not the costs of recycling the producers own products. Therefore WEEE tends to be shredded and value is lost. According to WRAP, 75% of gold is lost in a conventional WEEE recycling process.

Some say that the reason IPR has not been implemented is because it is too hard, too costly or too disruptive. However IPR systems have and continue to exist across the world in Japan, the Netherlands (until 2002), Maine, Washington State, Connecticut and Oregon. In Japan the IPR system has led to a range of design changes including the reduction of the number of components and screws, the use of recycled plastics in new components, the development of new recycling technologies, and greater communication between recyclers and designers.

The UK Government is currently investigating the potential of implementing IPR. The current UK regulations already ‘credit’ producers who make individual efforts to collect and recycle equipment from households against their market share obligation. However the UK WEEE regulations lack the fundamental requirement of each producer being financially responsible for the waste from its own products. Without that requirement IPR cannot exist, and as a first step, the UK regulations should transpose IPR into UK law.

There are now a range of IPR systems in place across the world. A solution called ‘Return Share’ involves calculating producer responsibility based on the share of each producer’s products returning from the market. This encourages producers to design products that last longer and penalises producers who put ‘throw away’ electronic goods on the market. France has developed a ‘Bonus Malus’ system where a products recycling fee is increased where the product is deemed to be less well designed, and reduced for products that are deemed to be well designed.

However questions remain over the difficulty of setting criteria, measuring the design of products and responding to dynamic changes to products. Japan has adopted a purer form of IPR for PCs where producers collect their own branded products through the postal system. The UK should learn from these options as policy makers consider going back to the future.

Changes in commodity prices, resource scarcity, innovations in recycling technologies, and the transition to a circular economy mean that the future will be very different from the present. Producer responsibility policy, take back systems and recycling technologies will need to be equally dynamic to respond. It is vital that policy makers adopt a 2020 vision to ensure that policy meets the needs of the future, rather than just fixing the problems of the present.

Bruno Zago is UK&I environmental manager at HP

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