Solid Waste & Recycling


Cover Story: The Redesign Revolution

The past decade has experienced an explosion of environmental "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) policy initiatives around the globe. EPR policy extends a producer's responsibility for a product...

The past decade has experienced an explosion of environmental “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) policy initiatives around the globe. EPR policy extends a producer’s responsibility for a product or its packaging to the post-consumer stage. The two key features of environmental EPR are: the shifting of responsibility (physical and/or economic) upstream toward the producer and away from municipal authorities and the provision of incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations into the design of products.

Policy instruments to accomplish this include deposit-refund systems, take-back legislation, materials taxes, combined taxes/subsidies, so-called “advance disposal fees,” and recycled-content requirements.

Currently, 30 countries have EPR laws for packaging; about 15 have battery take-back programs and nine require the recycling of electronics components. In Canada alone there about 36 different programs for beverage containers, tires, used oil, packaging, batteries, paint, refrigerants, pesticide containers and other hazardous materials.

Concurrent with this global movement is the recent release of a publication from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) entitled Extended Producer Responsibility — A Guidance Manual for Governments. The manual is rooted in basic EPR principles and may be the most definitive resource to date on the design of EPR programs and policies. Information was derived from a broad array of stakeholders. These included governments, the private sector, academia, citizens’ groups, legal and trade experts, international bodies and trade associations.

At least 15 European countries with full or partial EPR programs use industry levies to fund recycling/recovery programs for packaging. A key point in most levy schemes is that all producers of packaging fund the system.

Levy schemes are not simply based on a “fee for service” charge. Instead, they vary from country to country, with charges based on material type and size to more complex schedules using recycled content credits or an environmental index based on the lifecycle of a material. (This may incorporate the variables of energy, water and resource consumption.) The incorporation of economic instruments into the levy scheme results in a system wherein difficult-to-recycle or environmentally less-friendly materials carry a higher fee. Such structures are an incentive to reduce and reuse, and also to shift to environmentally preferable material and procure recycled content.

In general, countries that maintain full producer responsibility have experienced increased recovery, source reduction and re-design of packaging. For example, Germany and Austria have full producer responsibility systems and have experienced growth in recovery that exceeds the rate of growth in waste. Countries like France and Spain have partial producer responsibility (e.g., municipalities pay for the bulk of the system); and they have experienced insufficient diversion in relation to the growth of waste generation.

In Germany, manufacturers have changed their packaging habits, producing lighter and smaller units and eliminating useless packaging. There is a great deal of refillable packaging on the market as well. The use of packaging has fallen by about 13.4 per cent (1.4 million tonnes) since the EPR program was implemented in 1991.

Re-design in action

Microsoft’s Office 2001: MAC Software exemplifies green packaging re-design. It is a lightweight rounded jewel case weighing only 180 grams. The entire unit weighs one-tenth of the old one. The polystyrene acrylic case contains 50 per cent post-consumer resin from old water bottles and CD cases. The case is also reusable, containing five polypropylene sleeves that can hold 10 CDs. Transportation packaging used to ship the new case was reduced by 50 per cent, resulting in lower recycling costs for the company and reduced vehicle emissions.

The shift in design was in large part because of the growth of international packaging laws. As a result, the company developed an “environmental packaging protocol” — a series of environmental considerations addressed during the design process of each packaging component. Consequently, it saves 13.5 U.S. cents/unit sold in Germany and incurs savings in other countries with packaging laws.

Pat Sullivan, senior project manager in the packaging engineering group of Microsoft’s World-wide Operations Division says, “Microsoft has stepped out of the ‘box’ to simplify packaging, reduce materials and become more environmentally friendly in our product packaging.”

Estee Lauder Companies (ELC), one the world’s largest cosmetic companies, has established a “Packaging Design Protocol.” With over 15 separate brand names (including Aveda, Clinique, MAC, and Aramis), more than 50,000 active stock keeping units (SKU) and 60 packaging developers, the company was faced with paying packaging fees in 21 countries and submitting more than 200 source reduction reports per year.

ELC’s new protocol established a process for considering environmental issues during packaging design. Essentially, the protocol asks how the package will be recovered, if it can be source reduced, if the materials used are environmentally friendly, and what fees the package will incur.

The protocol includes a packaging database with information on material type, composition, recycled content, weights and volumes, labeling and essential requirements data. The company has succeeded in training its packaging designers and market professionals. From an environmental standpoint, ELC has eliminated carriers and lipstick liners, reduced PVC, and in Germany, established a reusable distribution-packaging program.

For a link to the OECD manual, see

Clarissa Morawski is principal of CM Consulting, based in Toronto, Ontario.

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