What Is Extended Producer Responsibility?

An International Effort

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has 38 member countries, was founded in 1961 to bring about economic progress and world trade. In 1994, it launched an effort to implement the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility. Today, nearly every member country, including the United States, has implemented at least one Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program.

But what is extended producer responsibility? Well, it is also referred to as product stewardship, and is both a concept and a policy approach to issues related to the treatment or disposal of products at the post-consumer phase of their useful life. It’s based on the idea that producers should bear a significant financial and/or physical responsibility for keeping their products out of the waste stream. It also encompasses the notion that producers can prevent waste at the source by treating waste reduction as a design principle and incentivizes them for doing so. Municipalities can’t do that. They can only mitigate environmental impact at the disposal stage. Only manufacturers can design and produce environmentally safer products in the first place.

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What is Extended Producer Responsibility?

The basic premise is that manufacturers and importers should take responsibility for the impact their products have on the environment from selection and sourcing of materials through the production process and continuing on through the use of those products to the end of their useful life and eventual disposal. This responsibility extends to:

  • Minimizing upstream environmental impacts associated with resource extraction through design choices related to materials
  • Minimizing waste generated throughout the manufacturing process by applying environmentally-conscious process design principles
  • Minimizing downstream environmental impacts related to product use and disposal by anticipating and designing with those eventualities in mind (e.g., designing products to be disassembled into component parts)
  • Accepting a certain amount of legal, physical, or financial responsibility for environmental impacts that can’t be designed out of products

EPR Legislation in the United States

Many states have enacted legislation to implement EPR regulations with regard to certain products, such as paint, batteries, carpeting, mattresses, and electronics. For instance, some states have laws requiring paint manufacturers to develop programs making it easy for consumers to recycle unused paint, which can be reused as is, made into new paint, or repurposed. In these states, retailers charge consumers purchasing paint a small recycling fee, which a nonprofit product stewardship organization subsequently uses to recycle or otherwise manage the leftover paint.

In 2021, Oregon became only the second state to pass EPR legislation for packaging and paper. Several other states have similar legislation in the pipeline. Packaging and paper EPR laws typically cover printed paper and/or paper products, and in some states include single-use items such as straws, utensils, plates, cups, and plastic bags used as packaging. Methods for enforcing EPR requirements for packaging and paper may require manufacturers to join a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) and pay a fee to the PRO to help manage the materials covered.

California currently is the only state that has passed EPR laws for carpeting, which requires carpet manufacturers to design and implement their own stewardship program funded by fees paid by consumers at the time of purchase. Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon have similar laws going through the legislative process.

Disposing of old mattresses usually means hauling them off to the closest municipal waste landfill, often at a cost to consumers. California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island currently have EPR laws on the books for mattresses, and Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Oregon have bills working their way through their legislatures—all designed to make it easier for consumers to get rid of unwanted mattresses. Mattress manufacturers pay into a stewardship organization for that purpose. The Mattress Recycling Council, a nationwide organization, helps operate stewardship organizations in states that have enacted EPR laws for mattresses.

Current Status of EPR Regulation

As of 2022, 33 states have at least one EPR mandate; some also have local mandates. Current EPR regulations cover materials in these categories:

  • Appliances containing refrigerants
  • Auto switches
  • Batteries
  • Carpet
  • Electronics and cell phones
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Framework
  • Gas cylinders
  •  Mattresses
  • Medical sharps
  • Mercury thermostats
  • Packaging
  • Paint
  • Pesticide containers
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Solar panels

The end-of-life strategies manufacturers establish under EPR mandates typically fall into three categories: product take back and recycling programs; recycling collection points and pickups; products designed to be easier to reuse, repair, and recycle. Waste management professionals can be a valuable resource for manufacturers, especially smaller companies, seeking advice on appropriate end-of-life strategies for the items they create. Contact Repurposed Materials today to find out how we can help you find a new home for unwanted materials.