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Design for Environment: does EPR encourage it?

22nd June 2017

As more and more countries around the world begin to implement varying forms of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), it is worth pausing to consider what the desired outcomes of EPR are. The first, in most cases, is as a tax, or an investment in the recycling industry. This means less waste reaching landfill sites and so has obvious environmental benefits. However, a second, and arguably just as important aim of EPR is to try and encourage manufacturers to produce less packaging and design packaging/products which are easier to recycle. This is known as Design for Environment (DfE).

Once you pop – you just can’t recycle

Pringles

Poor DfE has recently been called “the Pringles-factor” as this is an example of a product whose packaging has much room for improvement. Pringles packaging often consists of a cardboard tube, plastic top, metal bottom, and a foil lid. This makes it very difficult for recycling plants to process properly. However, it should be noted that the lid does make a great frisbee!

An OECD report (too long and in-depth to do proper justice here) looking at this subject found that the EPR incentives for improved DfE are generally too weak. The style of EPR that is implemented in a lot of countries, Collective Producer Responsibility (CPR), is often the cause of this. Many CPR schemes use a fixed-fee system, e.g. you pay $10 for each computer produced. These fixed fees obviously provide no incentive to improve the DfE. In Japan, however, some manufacturers run their own recycling plants. This is seen as more effective due to the direct feedback they can get from their recycling plants. This feedback is invaluable to designers when trying to improve DfE.

Is smaller better?

Beside EPR, there are many other factors which affect the design and structure of packaging and products. These include aesthetics, product protection, material costs, among others. When considering recycling, one driver of interest is miniaturisation. Making packaging smaller reduces transport costs (and is good for the environment – more products are moved with less fuel). However, packaging is often miniaturised at the cost of becoming less recyclable. Less common materials may be used, or, in the case of WEEE, the materials may be harder to separate as they are crammed into smaller places.

Name and shame – the French way!

One way to encourage DfE is to enhance the basic EPR model. This happens in France, where poor and “disruptive” packaging design is penalised. A heavier tax is implemented and, along with the reputational damage, this should encourage manufacturers to work towards better design.

There are multiple and complex drivers for packaging design. It is clear to see that EPR alone struggles to motivate manufacturers to improve their DfE. New and old EPR systems should, therefore, take this into consideration.