27. January 2022
Topic:  Responsibility

🔎 Tracing Accountability in EPR: Who Really Bears the Burden?

Reconnect with EPR expert Manuel Asali to dissect who should bear the responsibility under the Extended Producer Responsibility model. This engaging conversation sheds light on the intricacies of product stewardship, new recycling technologies, and privatized waste management. Learn about the various stakeholders in the circular economy and their roles in making EPR a success. Tune in for an in-depth analysis of accountability in sustainable production practices.

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Interview transcript

ML (Michael Londesborough): One way to reconcile the growing demand for plastics with the advent of the circular economy is EPR - Extended Producer Responsibility - at least that's what Manuel Asali thinks. Manuel Asali is the vice president of Nexant, which is an energy and chemical advisory working in the petrochemical industry. Today we should be connecting with him to talk about EPR and finding out who is responsible. Let's talk about it!

ML: Hello Manuel, good to see you and thank you for joining me. I would like to speak about the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR. In particular, I’d like to talk to you about whose responsibility EPR really is. So, who is responsible?

MA (Manuel Asali): Thank you Michael, it’s great to be here. This is one of the key questions in the whole concept of EPR and product stewardship. If we look at the value chain in a very broad sense, you start with the raw materials, the polymer manufacturers, the brand owners or the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) and eventually the customers, then there's an end-of-life point where you gather the waste and you decide what to do with that waste - that's in the very traditional linear model. So the key question in EPR is: If the whole point of EPR is to shift the responsibility of that waste or that end product in the life cycle upstream, who is the one who takes that responsibility? It could be, for example, the OEMs or the polymer producer - there's no clear-cut answer so far on this and I would like us to explore the different angles of it.

ML: You mentioned the current system is linear, moving to a more of a circular one. At the moment, whose responsibility are the waste streams? Let's begin there.

MA: Yes, that's a good way to start. Basically, what's happening today is that we have given all of that responsibility to the waste management companies or the municipalities who take that waste and, as we know, a lot of that waste ends up probably in landfills.

ML: What's the EPR concept suggesting to us now? If we're going to be moving away from the government's looking after our waste management, how is it going to change with the implementation of EPR?

MA: In a way, again very broadly, the idea of EPR is almost as though you are privatizing the waste management, but I want to be clear about this I’m not suggesting that suddenly polymer manufacturers or even brand owners are going to suddenly find themselves receiving all this waste or this all this stream of waste coming back to them and they have to figure out what to do. No, we have to be a lot smarter than that and actually people are being quite smart, because there's also a lot of other value that can be extracted out of that waste, so we need to slice these things slowly. Let me give you an example, Michael. I mean, there's one way in which you can do EPR as a producer of polymers and it could be in a sort of voluntary private scheme. That would mean, for example, somebody who makes plastic bottles and has an agreement with the with a retailer who then has an agreement with customers to bring back the bottles and then you have a relatively close loop that can be managed privately. Now, that's a straightforward way to do it, but when you're making a car for example with all the different plastic parts in a car, it's much more tricky to see exactly how you're going to bring those polymers back to be able to reuse them. We need to start with the waste.

ML: At the moment you mentioned the word voluntary, how do you see this currently and how do you see this in the future? We're beginning to realize the value in what we previously did we previously termed as waste, we now know that there's value in the molecules that these materials are made from. The producers recognize that value and there are new incentives to reuse a lot of these materials. So, do you see this being a voluntary system, or are we looking at mandatory enforcements by legislation? What's happening now and where is it going to go in the future?

MA: Correct. Legislation is still not broad, and it's not very specific in terms of the requirements for EPR and as you probably know Michael, one of the issues with legislation and probably the things that worry some of the producers or that producers hate is that legislation is very inconsistent - it changes frequently, it's very different between one region and another. For example, what the European union has been saying is that we need to increase the level of recycling and there's a clear target to recycle 50% of the polymers by 2025. That's fine, but it doesn't really say how that has to be done. They talk about EPR as they still say we need to grow the EPR, however it's still implying that it's going to be a voluntary or a private endeavor.

ML: So we understand the why - we need to go into the circular economy, we need to be much more efficient with our use of materials, we have to understand there's value in waste and that value should be reused again for efficiency purposes. That means there's going to be some sort of collaborative work between legislative government bodies and private industry into doing the operations required to get that circular momentum achieved in EPR. Then, the big question is how - I presume the how is about implementation of new technologies that's going to innovate in the recycling world. But also I’m thinking about that there must be a huge space for opportunity. If there are companies that are used to producing a certain material or a certain product and now all of a sudden they're being encouraged and getting incentives to reuse a lot of material streams - do they have the expertise and the capability to do that or is there a new opportunity here?

MA: That's the key point, because manufacturers of polymers don't have any expertise in managing the waste. So what we see is that groups of companies are getting together and they're creating these things that are called P.R.O. - Producer Responsibility Organizations. The idea of these organizations is precisely to try to help bridge that gap between what's happening at the point of waste and to try to make those products easier to bring back into the loop.

ML: In terms of innovation of new technologies treating waste - how do you see that? Do you think the petrochemical industry is improving all the time in innovative ways to recycle waste to get that follow that product life cycle all the way to the end and then try to renew the potential that the molecules still have? Do you see that innovation happening? Is it a hotbed of activity or do you think there needs to be a better promotion of new technologies and a more aggressive implementation of new technologies?

MA: Some of the companies are already doing hard work on this – in the entire spectrum, from the mechanical recycling side to the raw material or the energy recycling side. Let me say it like this, Michael, I think it's a good way to think about it - we need to make waste management more professional. I’m not suggesting that some companies may be already quite professional, but the point I’m trying to make is that if you look at how they are dealing with waste in places like Japan or in some pockets in Europe - out of a single stream of waste they get products that become remanufactured and then they for example make compost, produce pellets that can be recycled, make bio gas and eventually make slag that can be mixed with concrete and cement. The amount of products that they landfill is very small, so this is what I mean by becoming a little bit more professional from that point. Now, as chemical companies, what can we do? Well, we can get a good stream of recycled material that we can incorporate into our products - that's already been done - or you may even find alternative feedstocks that you could feed into your crackers to produce polymers. Then you're making virgin polymers, but with the use of recycled raw material.

ML: Fantastic. In conclusion then, would you agree that in the question of whose responsibility is EPR, it sounds from what you're telling me that it's a very much a collective thing? That we need to work a lot better together, whether it be producer companies or it's the consumer and the levels of education so they know-how to work effectively with the recycling of waste and that we need new P.R.O. companies that can that can lift the recycling of waste to a to a higher professional level and then we need effective government and legislation. Is that a fair reflection on the discussion?

MA: Yes and if I may just add, because I’m glad you brought it into the picture the whole idea of the customers and the end users also becoming more educated about what to do with the waste, which we know is also part of the problem.

ML: Well, Manuel, thank you very much and hope to see you soon.

MA: Thank you, Michael.

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