Recently, State Secretary Heijnen (Environment) published a letter with ambitious research directions for improving extended producer responsibility (EPR). Reason for our colleagues Wimer Heemskerk and Machteld van Weede to take a closer look at the growing role of the EPR in the Netherlands.
EPR is increasingly being used to transform society into a more circular economy. There are EPRs for packaging, textiles, batteries and car tires, among other things. EPRs for medicine residues, shoes and diapers are in the making. The idea of the EPR is simple: producers are themselves responsible for the life cycle of their product. If any waste remains with your product after use (for example packaging or no longer usable parts of the product itself), you as a producer are responsible for its collection and processing. At least financially, and often also organizationally. For example, some EPRs also impose requirements on the share of waste that must be processed into new products – in other words: how much must be recycled.
Foundations: a new ‘layer’ between government and producers
It is of course not feasible to have each individual company collect and process its residual products itself. In most cases this is done through a collaborative organization. Sometimes, when the government believes that such cooperation is necessary, it can declare it ‘universally binding’. This means that all producers who deal with that waste product are obliged to contribute to this foundation.
These foundations that have been declared universally binding are in a unique position within civil society, because they are seen by both the business community and the government as an extension of the other party, which means they are often criticized and find it difficult to meet everyone’s expectations.
The EPR is still up in the air
This criticism of the EPR is loudly heard in the House. For example, parties on the left believe that by opting for the EPR, the minister is relinquishing control over making the Netherlands circular. They would rather see the central government take control of waste policy again. On the business side, it is felt Dutch companies are being given too big a load to carry, while they often already experience a growing administrative burden.
Others believe the EPR does not go far enough. For example, what about foreign (waste) chains? Various NGOs argue for replacing the Extended Producer Responsibility with an ‘Ultimate Producer Responsibility’, a responsibility for not only the domestic, but also the entire foreign chain. This remains beyond the horizon for now, but the first proposals to oblige companies to map their foreign waste chain and account for this are on the table in the European Parliament.
The unclear division of responsibilities also regularly causes friction: municipalities are responsible for implementing waste collection, producers must pay for it and the ministry must justify whether or not it has achieved its objectives to Europe and the House of Representatives. It was the reason for VVD MP Erik Haverkort to call during the Circular Economy Committee debate for the entire chain (including collection) to be brought under the responsibility of the producers.
Choices for the next cabinet
The recent letter to Parliament from State Secretary Heijnen outlines the wishes for the further development of the EPR. In short: introducing more financial incentives for reuse, repair and ‘waste prevention’, broadening the EPR to waste that ends up outside the ‘regular’ waste streams and more government control over the collection of waste by municipalities and the resulting working agreements between municipalities and producers. For now, it remains a matter of research directions. The positions in the House also remain abstract for now. It will be up to the next cabinet to make decisions and even then, it will take years before the EPR has reached its ‘final’ form.
We can expect more EPRs in the coming years. After all, the ambitions – both of Europe and the Netherlands – in the field of circularity are high. And the political desire to become more sustainable and less dependent on countries outside Europe will not disappear anytime soon.