“EPR’s Broken Promises” — Bah Humbug!

Government is so easy to rail against. How great it is to lambast those faceless time-sucking bureaucrats that don’t care anything about Me. How fun to stomp around, spit into the wind, and swear about all that they do wrong.

In the latest edition of E-Scrap News (December 2011), the Director of Corporate Environmental Affairs for Sony Electronics, Doug Smith, kicked a lot of dust onto the EPR bandwagon. He waived his arms madly and decried all the failed promises and half-eaten logic of pointy-headed pension-brained cubicle lifers. But by the end of his article, entitled “EPR’s Broken Promises,” Doug was onto something. He was asking us all to consider the programs in Canada and Europe, which resulted in “rational laws” and “protected the current economic markets and developed fair market financing.” Doug is rightly concerned about how government policies can best accomplish laudable goals, as well as to encourage product design changes by individual producers managing their own products.

Sure, there is much you might disagree with in Doug’s article. The claim that “[EPR has] no influence on product design” is as unsubstantiated as the definitive statement that it does have influence. Nor does the article fully explore that there are many other reasons why government pursues EPR laws – among them fairness to taxpayers, lowering government costs, environmental benefits, and recycling jobs. It also does not mention that many of the problems with the current laws were caused by electronics manufacturers failing to agree among themselves about what is best policy. Also, the statement that EPR is a “hidden tax” mixes up what is paid for by taxes (most government programs) and what is a consumer product fee (EPR). And the “regressive ripple effect of cost internalization” is a real mind bender. Oh, and my favorite – that no EPR electronics laws except CA’s ARF can claim to create jobs because there is no way to ensure that the jobs stay in the state.

But all the hand waving aside, Doug is pointing out the real need to take an honest assessment of the 25 U.S. EPR electronics laws. Which work, and which don’t, and why? What can we learn from laws in other countries? How have these laws performed relative to lowering costs, saving governments money, increasing recycling, creating jobs, and creating a level playing field? What are the policy best practices, and should these be woven into a new federal law that covers all the states?

Emotions can often run high with EPR. After all, the movement has created a paradigm shift of tectonic proportions that has changed the dynamic of how waste in the U.S. and globally is managed. For electronics EPR in the U.S., it is time to step back and assess the situation in a balanced manner – with all the stakeholders at the table.

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7 thoughts on ““EPR’s Broken Promises” — Bah Humbug!

  1. Thank you for the statement regarding taxes versus product fee. We struggle with that explanation a lot here in Ontario, Canada. Interestingly enough, our provincial EPR program for waste electronics is pretty well established and works fairly well, while the EPR program for household hazardous waste is a constant work in progress (with no end in sight). It is definitely important to have all stakeholders at the table — we are all in this together.

    – John Watson, Waste Diversion Education Coordinator, Halton Region
    BLOG http://www.haltonrecycles.wordpress.com; TWITTER @HaltonRecycles

  2. Scott Cassel says:

    thanks for the comment John. Canada is ahead of the U.S. regarding EPR for HHW, so I cannot offer any advice on that topic. HHW is a broad area of products. We are all looking for a framework so that we can be efficient in how we regulate. Bringing the stakeholders together will ensure that all viewpoints are represented.


    • Helen Spiegelman says:

      Hi Scott and John, The success of the Canadian EPR programs (across much of Canada) stems from the way we separate out different product types and require special programs for treating just that type of product: paint, tires, electronics (several separate categories were phased in chronologically in BC). As Scott says, HHW is a broad area of products. It is hard to get sensible solutions that fit so many different products — it’s even hard to get a reasonable conversation amont stakeholders, when the industries are not closely related. There’s lots more efficiency in keeping your P’s separated from your Q’s when setting up programs.

  3. I think Doug’s frustrations are a direct result of the manufacturers walking away from the NEPSI table 10 years ago. If they had offered a solution there would not be a patchwork of laws that aid to confusion.

    I do think that CA’s inclusion of the EU ROHS provisions and Purchasing Requreiments had more impact on design in the US. These are the only EPR remnants left in the SB 20 effort and are often overlooked in other EPR bills ( and may not have been needed since the CA inclusions set the bar).

  4. Scott Cassel says:

    Matt, I agree that the roots of Doug’s frustrations were sown with the industry’s difficulty in finding a solution within their membership. That directly led to the patchwork of legislation. i agree on CA’s EU Rohs provision. that is best practice and should be considered in all state e-waste laws.

  5. Bob Kenney says:

    I couldn’t agree more that “it is time to step back and assess the situation in a balanced manner – with all the stakeholders at the table”. Hopefully when they assess the different programs capture rates are well analysed. If one does a per capita capture rate of the industry electronics recycling programs in Canada, the results are quite interesting. Keep in mind that generation rates (consumption) vary with incomes between provinces. Why the results are different would be very revealing.

  6. EPR certainly has had no effect on product design. The burden of proof is on the people claiming it will, and I don’t even see any claims that it actually has. More importantly, where government has had an effect on product design, e.g. ROHS (leadfree), the question is whether it was good or bad for the environment to mine coral islands in Indonesia for non-toxic tin. While I think some of your points, and Doug’s, merit continued debate, the claim of an effect on product design is unfounded, and whether product design changes are a net benefit to the environmental lifecycle is a more pressing “precautionary principle” for environmentalists to discuss.

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