The recent 2nd annual Canadian Waste Sector Symposium had an excellent slate of speakers and was a good learning opportunity.
One of the things that impressed me most was the degree to which Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has become or is in the process of becoming ingrained throughout North America. There is a whole industry that has been spawned to manage this process and certainly my own business in a small way has been a part of that.
One of the things I hear the most at public meetings related to waste management is why can’t manufacturers take more responsibly for their products and why won’t they change them to make them more recyclable. There was a time when I did not have a good answer. While not perfect and in some cases very much in development I can honestly answer these folks now and say this is happening and continues to develop.
While EPR moves the cost of managing wastes up the chain it is still we as consumers that ultimately bears these costs. However, moving it up the chain provides incentives for manufacturers to minimize their costs which leads to smarter packaging and the knowledge that this packaging as well as consumer goods such as computers, tires and paint are being managed in an environmentally responsible manner.
Another interesting comment and observation that one speaker mentioned is that waste generation continues to increase and is expected to do so for the foreseeable future.
From a packaging perspective EPR has led to examples of smaller packaging and in some cases more concentrated products (e.g. laundry detergent) resulting in less waste. EPR has not, nor was it intended to, reduce overall consumption. It is really about manufacturers taking responsibility for the wastes generated from the products they sell.
Electronic waste, described by another speaker as the fastest growing segment of consumer generated waste, continues to expand. We exchange our phones and computers every couple of years. We buy new TVs and IPads. We generate a mountain of waste in other words that is on the balance being managed.
EPR is a very compelling model for managing wastes that have been generated. A similar compelling model needs to be developed that will create a real incentive to reduce the amount of waste that is generated in the first place.
Some would argue that Zero Waste philosophy fits the bill although quite frankly its meaning is not well understood by the public and on the balance it does not appear to be a very realistic approach to meet this end.
While we can feel good about the successes of EPR we still need to tackle in a very real way our material consumption.
Ultimately we need some mechanism that that dis-incents lack of product durability and product obsolescence. This needs to be twinned with a fresh look at consumerism. Otherwise we will continue the purchasing/waste generation loop that we find ourselves in.