Producer responsibility is a policy concept designed to extend a manufacturer’s responsibility beyond the sale and use of its their products to include disposal at end of its life as well.

As far as packaging and producer responsibility is concerned, there are two aspects:

  • designing packaging with its eventual disposal in mind
  • requiring producers to take some financial responsibility for management and treatment of packaging waste

In the UK, these are covered by two laws:

Producer responsibility on packaging has not influenced packaging design but it has ensured that all parts of the packaging and packaged goods supply chain work together to achieve higher recycling rates.

Producer responsibility defined

Companies, consumers and government bodies are involved at different stages in a product’s life. This means that all of them influence the environmental impact of a product and therefore all have a role to play in ensuring environmentally sound waste management. The product manufacturers have the dominant role since they take the key decisions on the design and composition of the product and these largely determine how it can be managed after use.

In 1996, the European Commission announced that the principle of producer responsibility would be central to the European Union’s future waste management strategy.

Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard explained, “Many manufacturers have for too long considered the problems of waste management as if it was somebody else’s problem. It is important to clearly underline that it is also their problem. We cannot come to terms with the ever-growing amounts of waste in a rational way, unless concerns for waste minimisation and recovery are built into the product from the start,”

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which includes among its membership non-European countries such as Australia, Japan, Korea and the USA, has a broadly similar definition for what it calls Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – “an environmental policy approach where the producers’ responsibility, physical and/or financial, for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. Producers accept their responsibility when they design their products to minimise life cycle impacts and when they accept legal, physical and/or economic responsibility for the environmental impacts that cannot be eliminated by design”.

“A primary function of EPR is the transfer of the costs and/or physical responsibility (full or partial) of waste management away from local government authorities and the general taxpayer to that of the producer.”

According to the OECD, EPR can be driven by government through regulation or can be implemented by producers through voluntary initiatives to manage the end-of-life aspects of their products.

Producer responsibility and packaging

Producer responsibility is implicit in the 1994 European Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste, though the term is not used. It was intended to ensure that all sectors involved in the life cycle of a packed product took a share of the responsibility for the environmental of the packaging after use.

The general principle behind this was that responsibility should be allocated to the part of the life cycle which had control over the environmental impact ie manufacturers for design, consumers for responsible use and separation of recyclables, local government for recovery, recycling and final disposal.

The Directive requires EU member states to ensure that packaging is not excessive for the purpose intended and is suitable for recycling, energy recovery or composting.

In the UK, the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulation sets eco-design requirements which all packaging must meet. The Directive also requires member states to set up return, collection and recovery systems for packaging waste but it does not specify who is to fund them. National governments decide this and most opt for ‘shared producer responsibility’ primarily because local government is legally responsible for collecting household waste. Producers (ie manufacturers and retailers) fund only the additional costs involved in meeting the Directive’s recovery and recycling targets.

The UK does this by requiring all businesses involved in the packaging supply chain which handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging and have an annual turnover of more than £2 million to purchase evidence showing that specified quantities of packaging waste have been delivered for reprocessing on their behalf.

Most other Member States, but not all, operate ‘Green Dot’ systems where the responsibility falls on the business that puts a packed product on the market.

The UK decided that instead of putting all the responsibility onto product manufacturers, the obligation should be divided between packaging raw material suppliers, packaging suppliers, packaged goods manufacturers and importers and distributors so that all make a direct financial contribution.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘shared responsibility’ but it is not the same as the original concept of ‘shared producer responsibility’ where the responsibility was for the environmental impact of the packaging, not the packaging itself.

How producer responsibility for packaging has worked in practice

In practice, producer responsibility for packaging has taken a form closer to the OECD’s definition than the Commission’s.

Designing packaging for recycling, composting or energy recovery isn’t an issue. The only packaging that isn’t suitable for at least one of these waste treatments is ceramic jars – and as so few of them are put on the market, the Directive exempts them from this requirement anyway.

Packaging is constantly being minimised – partly for environmental reasons, but mainly to keep costs down. Packaging has been lightweighted whenever technology and market preferences allow, and producer responsibility has played only a minor role in this.

The cost of contributing to packaging waste management is significant, but not as significant as the cost of damaged goods and spoilt food so product protection and other functional considerations have remained the main influence on packaging choice and design.

Producer responsibility has transferred some of the costs of packaging waste management away from local government and towards the producer. The UK packaging and packaged goods industry contributes around £60 million per year to support recycling.

Before producer responsibility legislation was adopted, product sectors and material sectors tended to work on their own recycling strategies. The legislation brought the entire packaging and packaged goods supply chain together to work towards maximising synergies to achieve higher recycling rates and more cost-effective recycling.