Scientists call for Ultimate Producer Responsibility

Researchers from universities in the Netherlands, Nigeria and the United Kingdom find that many circular economy policies and practices focus on local and national levels, while ignoring the international dimension.
Picture: Dokumol/Pixabay

When Europe ships electronic waste (‘e-waste’) and second-hand products to West Africa, the producers should be held responsible for value retention and sound e-waste management. While the current European system makes producers responsible under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, researchers argue such responsibility should extend globally with consideration for circularity, sustainability, and fairness.

Four researchers and twenty-four electronic waste experts from nine countries have co-created an international action plan to move from waste collection and downcycling to a more circular and sustainable approach in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) management. Their research outlines a Blueprint for Ultimate Producer Responsibility and a science-based petition that calls for making European producers responsible for managing their e-waste internationally. The petition demands that the European Commission and the government of Nigeria organize effective repair and recycling for second-hand and discarded e-waste via Ultimate Producer Responsibility (UPR). UPR takes international trade in used EEE into account and includes a financial transfer mechanism from EU-based Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programmes to countries that import second-hand EEE from Europe.

From national jurisdictions to global responsibility

Existing EPR systems limit the producer’s responsibility to national jurisdictions. When waste is exported to jurisdictions outside the EPR, the producer’s responsibility does not apply anymore. The existing EPR systems neither lead to multiple product use cycles nor to safe e-waste management, argue the researchers.

“If we observe the current international shipment of waste, a producer is no longer responsible once the waste or used product is in another jurisdiction. This can drive waste shipment to destinations that might not have the capacity for sound management,” explains Kaustubh Thapa, PhD at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University.

Professor Olawale Olayide from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, which conducted the research in West Africa’s economic powerhouse of almost 200 million inhabitants, adds: “While it is illegal to ship e-waste from Europe to West Africa, there are many loopholes. For example, when a used phone is sent to Nigeria, the chances are that the old phone is non-functional or becomes non-functional probably sooner than later. However, the current system does not hold European producers responsible for taking care of their waste in Nigeria.”

This disconnect between legality and reality neither ensures nor guarantees the highest sustainability or circularity standards that a circular economy requires. It might even encourage producers to evade responsibility, the researchers criticize: “Producers need to manage their waste not just in one country or region but globally. When waste is ‘out of sight’, it is also ‘out of mind’ from the producers, and this should not be the case; the circular and just future we envision is different,” claims Kaustubh Thapa.

The current EPR system results in loss of value, not value retention

Research finds that European EPR focuses on processes that result in the loss of value rather than value retention. Walter Vermeulen, Professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, states: “It is high time to upgrade these systems by addressing the three major design flaws we have identified.” According to the research findings, EPR systems promote downcycling, which degrades the value instead of maintaining or upgrading it. “This focus on recycling needs to be shifted to prioritize retention options like Refuse, Reduce, Resell, Reuse, Repair, Remanufacture and Repurpose before Recycling,” explains Professor Vermeulen. “Other research shows that the Netherlands consumes 8.5 million passenger car tires every year, recycle 100% of discarded tires – only a third of which are exported; yet little is done to design tires with a longer lifespan which are easier to reuse, retreat and recycle.”

The current system decided by producers and importers only

The third design flaw the researchers identified in current EPR systems is the limited scope of the decision-making processes, which involve producers and importers only. This arrangement reinforces the focus on waste collection and downcycling and leads to a situation where high-value retention options are neglected.

“To enable and favour the necessary switch to more circularity and sustainability of products, we recommend including those economic actors who engage in reselling, repairing, refurbishing, or introducing new high-value retention recycling options,” says Walter Vermeulen. “Considering those economic actors and giving them a seat at the table will lead to more high-value retention, and therefore more circularity. They know how to implement these options, will advocate for them, and change the focus from downcycling and value loss to upcycling, maintenance and value retention.”

Not just electronic waste – UPR generally applicable for a circular economy

The research goes well beyond electric and electronic equipment, and so does the envisaged and newly designed Ultimate Producer Responsibility (UPR) System. Kaustubh Thapa says: “We believe UPR should exist for more categories than just electronics. Think of it this way: the current EPR exists to manage waste in a country. UPR, on the other hand, exists to manage waste on Earth, irrespective of the country. If we look at the enormous transboundary trade and shipment of waste, such a UPR system is necessary. For a circular economy to come into existence, it is absolutely needed – and should be an integral part of any national, regional, or other circular economy strategy or framework.”

Petition to the European Commission and the Nigerian Government

Based on their research findings on e-waste and second-hand electric and electronic equipment in Nigeria, the evidence-based petition developed by the researchers calls upon the government of Nigeria and the European Commission to implement Ultimate Producer Responsibility and provides a range of ‘Recommended collaborative actions for African countries’. The petition requests the implementation of UPR for producers of electronic and electrical equipment that is exported from one country to another. A functional and enforced UPR will reduce the ecological and health impacts of such exports and create greater economic benefits associated with the transboundary shipment of second-hand and discarded electrical and electronic equipment.

Kaustubh Thapa explains: “The new Ultimate Producer Responsibility system is a significant element of the petition, but we also point out other key elements. The inclusion of thousands of people working in the informal waste management sector and better labour conditions is one important further component. Others are increased international collaboration to make UPR become a reality and to draw attention to the insufficient EPR system; another one is the global right to repair and its general importance for resource efficiency and a circular economy.”

The petition’s main objective is to inform consumers, producers of the electronic industry and policymakers in Europe and Africa about problems of the existing system, UPR as a solution, and to generate support from people around the globe. The researchers aim to achieve a maximum number of signatories of the petition, which they will then take to the Nigerian government and the European Commission to stimulate discussions around waste management and the different stakeholders’ responsibilities in view of a circular economy beyond national borders.


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