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The Importance of Extended Producer Responsibility

Written by Jaime Ferrer

Just how much plastic do we need, really?

Behind China and Indonesia, the Philippines is ranked third in the world for contributing to ocean litter. Every day, Filipinos use more than 163 million plastic sachet packets; by the end of each year, we would have accumulated 60 billion used sachets.

Current measures for containing the waste we generate have been found lacking. Some argue for stricter implementation of RA 9003, or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, which requires both the government and private sectors to adopt proper waste disposal techniques. Others will demand that single-use plastics - sachets, bags, cutlery and the like - be banned entirely. While straightforward, appealing, and definitely feasible for some products, this solution raises questions of affordability and food safety for others.

Lloyd Stouffer, editor of Modern Packaging magazine in the 1950s and staunch advocate of single-use plastic, once declared that “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” Representing our local plastics industry, the Polystyrene Packaging Council of the Philippines stated in a recent position paper that the abundance of single-use plastic pollution is due to a lack of discipline among consumers. The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance of Quezon City, which was enacted to address pollution from shopping malls, markets, and the like, imposes plastic bag usage fees “to change [the] consumer's mindless consumption of plastic bags.”

What all these cases have in common is that they propagate a belief that responsible solid waste management falls solely on the shoulders of consumers and local government units. But what if we were to devise a solution that not only considers the end-of-life of a product, but rather its entire life cycle? We could start by minimizing waste at its source: the producer.

 

   

Photo credit: The Philippine Star

The extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a set of policies that requires companies to address the environmental impacts of their products. To formulate an EPR that can effectively address our plastic waste problem, we must take into consideration the precarious balance between consumer, producer, and recycler. Consumers are constrained by a budget, producers will have to spend extra to recycle their products, and recyclers will pay consumers for used recyclable products, but will not accept items with low recyclability. There are several ways the EPR can address these factors, and I will cite one of them.

An advanced recycling fee (ARF) can be imposed on producers. This is a tax on product sales used to cover the cost of recycling their product waste. This may initially cost more for producers, but the objective in mind is that they will ultimately spend less on virgin material by substituting it with cheaper, recycled material. With an ARF in place, recycling facilities can collect the product waste by buying it from consumers in what is known as a recycling subsidy. Similar to this is how we currently can sell old glass bottles, scrap metal, and other materials to local junk shops. The collected plastic can then be reprocessed in recycling facilities and returned to producers to incorporate in their products.

What results is the beginning of a circular economy. Let’s follow the life of a shampoo bottle under this system. To manufacture the bottle, producers must first purchase new plastic as the raw material, and on top of that, pay in advance for a recycling facility to process it (ARF). The plastic is molded into a bottle, filled with shampoo, and shipped out to a store where it is sold. The consumer buys it and uses the shampoo. Once the bottle is empty and ready for disposal, consumers can earn some of their money back by selling it to a recycling facility (recycling subsidy). The bottle is crushed, shredded, recycled, and returned to the producer to use in manufacturing a new shampoo bottle. The cycle repeats, but this time around, the producer will not have to buy as much new plastic, therefore spending less, and more importantly, introducing less material into the environment.

The reason I chose to elaborate on this particular form of EPR is because it exploits different venues for waste reduction. Returning recycled plastic reduces material use in production, the recycling subsidy incentivizes consumers to favor recyclable products over single-use items, and products get redesigned to be made more recyclable. After all, a majority of the environmental impact of a product is determined by its design.

Photo credit: Idealpak

 

But keep in mind that implementing EPR for plastics industries is still far from perfect, and plenty of plastic waste may still end up in our landfills. The greatest challenge faced by plastics recycling industries abroad is the quality of plastic materials they collect for recycling, as they may be too contaminated with harmful chemicals to be reused.

It may be a long time before we see EPR policies becoming the norm here in the Philippines, between the lack of recycling facilities and the need for legislation that further demands accountability from producers. Moreover, finding the means to efficiently recycle and reuse plastic must not be misinterpreted as an opportunity to purchase and waste more.  As responsible consumers, there are still plenty of things we can do now to spread awareness and cultivate a healthier consumer culture in our community. The myriad of ways we can do these is a whole other article in itself.

We can begin by participating in discussions about waste and sustainable living. I personally recommend checking out MUNI Community (and their incredible podcast), which regularly features stories about environmental protection, zero waste habits, sustainable development, and so much more.

We can also adopt habits of our own that help minimize waste. The Buhay Zero-Waste group on Facebook features thousands of users constantly sharing their personal practices in upcycling plastic and reducing waste, ranging from reusing plastic bottles as vegetable planters to investing in menstrual cups.

Lastly, we can support our local organizations that are paving the way to a more sustainable feature. One example of such is the Sea Waste Education to Eradicate Plastic, a Negros-based organization that has been empowering the local community and documenting the zero-waste sari-sari stores that have been established there. 

An ideal circular economy implies that one day, there will be no need to produce any more plastic as all of it will be conserved in the product life cycle, the same way that all materials in our natural environment - the soil, water, and air sustaining us - are perfectly conserved. No amount of recycling facilities built will achieve this, nor any amount of ordinances banning plastic; both are pieces to the puzzle of a sustainable future, and nothing more. To complete the puzzle, we, the consumers, recyclers, and producers, each hold our own pieces, as we each play a part in realizing the future of our planet.

Jaime is a student at UP Diliman studying biology. He enjoys brief conversations, spaceship battles, and watching wildlife videos on YouTube.