The Circular Economy was but an apple when the first rules on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) were developed. The schemes aim to create financial incentives for producers to consider the full environmental impacts of their products, by obliging companies to foot the bill for their disposal after sale and use.

The first instance of EPR in EU legislation was in the Packaging Directive of 1994, then in the End of Life Vehicles Directive of 2000 and the Batteries Directive of 2006. By 2008, the Waste Framework Directive had included EPR as a general principle of waste management. But throughout all this, EPR schemes have remained the prerogative of national governments.

Over the years, the scope and number of EPR schemes across the EU has grown hugely, with a recent estimate by the organisation for packaging and the environment, EUROPEN, putting the amount raised by packaging schemes alone at over €3bn per year. Many companies now outsource their obligations to Producer Responsibility Organisations (PROs), some of which they partly own, and many of which operate as profit-making businesses.

The number of PROs varies by country and by sector (for waste electronics, for example, there are three in France and 39 in the UK). The fees companies pay, the number of products covered and the criteria for deciding how end-of-life costs are calculated also vary widely. So if you sell a product in a number of EU countries, the system now looks very complex indeed, as different EPR rules apply. So there are good single-market reasons for Brussels to be taking fresh action and many businesses welcome the moves towards harmonisation and minimum standards.

But the Commission has to balance this with the principle of subsidiarity – as emphasised by several national environment ministers at a Council meeting in March. At the same time, EPR schemes need a boost, as they have become central instruments of the EU’s plan to create a European Circular Economy. So policymakers in Brussels have a tough job. They need to ensure that national governments are left in the driving seat to design EPR schemes that don’t obstruct the free movement of goods. But they also want to use EU legislation to create genuinely European-wide norms on eco-design and secondary raw materials.

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