Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Reuse systems are recognised as key solutions to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics, which make up nearly half of all items polluting our environment (1). These topics are also explicitly referenced in the Zero Draft, the draft text currently being negotiated for a UN Plastics Treaty. Despite this recognition and inclusion, they are not being discussed in any real way in the treaty negotiations.
With discussions on processes out of the way, we must now consider ambitious substantive provisions, to include EPR and Reuse systems. Urgent and empowered international, and crucially national action is needed. Member states cannot wait for and rely on a treaty to act on plastic pollution.
This briefing considers this important national lens through the specific perspective of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Despite being small island states, SIDS are large ocean nations, stewarding nearly a third of our oceans and representing a fifth of the UN voting membership. They are an important player on the world stage, and many are pioneers on tackling plastic pollution.
In October 2023, Common Seas and the Global Plastics Policy Centre (University of Portsmouth) facilitated a SIDS working group on solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the Economist’s inaugural ‘Global Plastics Summit’ in Bangkok. We began exploring the topics of EPR and Reuse, which were selected by the Economist following consultation with SIDS. This briefing offers insights from SIDS gained at the Global Plastics Summit.
Reuse systems refer to systems in which packaging is owned and managed by a reuse provider, not the consumer. Reuse is often confused with refill, where consumers use their own containers multiple times, such as through in-store refill systems.
Scaling reusable, returnable packaging is increasingly seen as one of the biggest opportunities to reduce plastic pollution. The Global Plastics Policy Centre recently published a report that estimated Reuse systems could cut plastic pollution by 30% by 2040 (2).
Another study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation stressed that collaboration is essential to make the economics of Reuse work (3). When designed collaboratively and operated at a large scale, Reuse systems can compete with single use for many applications. This requires globally agreed standards for reuse, as well as blueprints and case studies showing how governments can support the transition.
Reuse systems are an especially exciting prospect in SIDS, whose geographic characteristics emulate the ideal ‘closed system’ scenario in which Reuse systems are known to work. In “closed systems”, packaging does not leave the site of sale. This is opposed to “open systems” where the packaging can leave the purchase area, making its return more challenging. Closed systems include music and sporting events, large buildings such as hospitals or universities… and potentially small islands.
There was strong appetite for trialling and upscaling Reuse in an island context at the Global Plastics Summit. Attendees shared that SIDS (and many developing countries) have low-capacity and often high turnover in government departments, presenting a limitation demonstrating Reuse. However, they highlighted existing businesses who might enable logistics, for example the hospitality sector, a main producer of waste, could provide washing facilities during the night hours.
With the economies of recycling being very challenging for remote islands, scaling Reuse systems represents a clear way to reduce single use plastic waste. However, careful consideration is required, particularly regarding the suitability of the reusable alternatives. SIDS also highlighted that context-relevant case studies would be welcomed to encourage understanding and adoption of these approaches.
Sustainable waste management requires reliable organisational structures and stable financing. There are several approaches for meeting these requirements, e.g. through voluntary initiatives, municipal fees, or taxes. However, it is increasingly recognised that these approaches are failing and insufficient for our growing waste problem. For this reason, EPR is acknowledged as a key mechanism to provide sustainable waste management. Its potential for wider benefits around waste reduction and prevention have been recognised as well.
The term "extended" in Extended Producer Responsibility refers to expanding the responsibilities of product manufacturers and brands beyond just the point of sale. Traditionally, companies have been responsible for their products until the consumer buys them. Once sold, the discarded products become the responsibility of waste management systems, largely funded by taxpayers. The 'extended’ responsibility pushes responsibility upstream to manufacturers, making them accountable for the entire product lifecycle, from design through end-of-life. This "extended" nature of EPR differentiates it from basic waste disposal regulations by connecting design decisions to waste management costs in order to align business and environmental incentives.
With nearly 400 EPR policies existing worldwide (4), the merits of EPR are widely accepted, and indeed are supported and oftentimes demanded by manufacturers themselves, who see it as a way to level the playing field and provide market certainty. A statement by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation called on EPR as a necessary part of the solution to packaging waste and pollution and was endorsed by over 100 global brands including Danone, Mars, Mondi, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever (5).
However, how (and should?) SIDS governments be motivated to implement EPR, given their limited influence on producers, most of whom operate outside their borders? This was a key question explored at the Global Plastics Summit. Attendees were cautious about EPR, but many SIDS were interested in how it could help to address their key challenges, particularly around reducing consumption and financing waste management.
This is an active area of research, demonstrated through the recent launch of the Global Action Partnership for EPR (6). It is likely going to appear as a national requirement in some form in the UN Plastics Treaty, so supporting SIDS (and wider member states) to build knowledge and understanding of these systems, in a way that is relevant to them, will be important going forward.
“SIDS small size can be a notable advantage, where their near ‘closed’ system nature uniquely positions them to be leaders in adopting new approaches to waste management and the use of plastics within their countries. With a unified , and informed voice on measures such as Reuse and EPR, SIDS have the potential to significantly influence the outcomes of these measures in the Global Plastics Treaty”
Antaya March, Research Lead of the Global Plastics Policy Centre.
Reuse systems and EPR are two key areas to develop understanding and buy-in. However, it is important to highlight that these are just two of many competing priorities. For SIDS particularly, the issue of legacy plastic must not be undermined. This is an issue that will plague these small islands for decades to come, and practical solutions must be identified and included in a UN Treaty.
Equally, it is not only the responsibility of SIDS to pioneer EPR and Reuse systems. We have chosen this lens to view these policies based on Common Seas’ work with SIDS governments, and their stated interest in these topics. However, these two solutions have real impact when scaled beyond one nation’s borders. By focusing on national action, but advancing in a joined-up and coordinated way, we can begin to feel the benefits that have been highlighted in numerous studies on these topics.
International NGOs, scientists and others can provide capacity for analysing policies and supporting the design of practical case studies to understand factors that lead to success. This crucial work provides SIDS, and countries around the world, with the tools and confidence to come up with right decisions for their specific contexts.
Common Seas will continue to explore these topics with the Global Plastics Policy Centre and our SIDS government partners, with a closer focus on the Caribbean region. Please get in touch for more information and to find out about our upcoming events.