A popular mind set in western Europe holds manufacturers accountable for their products' waste. From production through disposal, manufacturers are considered responsible for the degree to which their goods avoid or reduce environmental degradation.
In 1991, Germany launched its novel Packaging Ordinance, which obligates manufacturers and suppliers to take back their own packaging waste. To carry out the ordinance, commerce and industry founded a nonprofit company for private-sector collection, recovery and recycling of used packaging material.
Environmental Minister Klaus Topfer was confident that this new system would make Germany the first to overcome the "throwaway mentality." The goal, however, proved to be tougher than anticipated. Non-participation in the green dot licensing fees proved to be one of the program's main problems (see chart on page 14).
Italy was another pioneer of producer responsibility. In 1988, legislation was introduced that required industry-funded collection and recycling programs if recycling targets for certain materials were not met.
Today, a chain reaction is underway as one European country after another introduces producer responsibility beyond taxing disposable containers. Initially, the priority was packaging material.
Austria has patterned its system after Germany's, while France places a green dot on packaging to show that a licensing fee was paid but provides collection and sorting through existing municipal services. In France, incineration with energy recovery counts as recycling. The Belgian approach gives producers the option of paying eco-taxes or exempting themselves by reducing waste and recycling.
Since a European Union (EU) directive on packaging waste has been proposed but not yet passed, some countries' measures are less prescriptive. For example, the Netherlands has developed a system of covenants between government and industry, and the United Kingdom is forging a voluntary plan for recovery of packaging materials by industry.
Producer responsibility can be traced to the "polluter pays" principle, first adopted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1972 and by the European Community a year later. The 1991 Directive 75/442/EEC on waste states that "in accordance with the 'polluter pays' principle, the cost of disposing of waste must be borne by the holder who has waste handled by a waste collector ... and/or the previous holders or the producer of the product from which the waste came."
The current trend is to extend producer responsibility beyond packaging to include its contents. Newly established German and Dutch take-back policies will give companies cradle-to-grave liability for their goods. Germany's draft legislation covers scrap automobiles, electrical and electronic waste and also used batteries. A recent Dutch framework law gives the Ministry of the Environment authority to develop decrees for up to 30 different waste streams, including white goods and other appliances. Denmark, France and Austria also are investigating ways to regulate electrical and electronic waste by making producers and importers responsible.
Results have already become evident. Manufacturers of products that will be included in the new take-back regulations are beginning to organize collection services, open dismantling plants, develop recycling networks, devise designs for easier disassembly and research new recycling methods.
Prospects that industry will bear the fiscal burden alone are unlikely. If consumers call for environmental benefits, they will ultimately have to pay at least part of the cost.
Some are suggesting that responsibility is not isolated but shared. In a report prepared for the French government, Jean-Pierre Desgeorges states that there is an interactive chain of parties responsible for electrical and electronic waste "valorization": the producers of raw materials, manufacturers, distributors, collection and recycling professionals as well as local governments, who "end up handling all unsolved problems." Desgeorges even includes the electric utilities that profit from the finished products placed on the market.
The producer responsibility issue was largely Europe's own business when only consumer packaging was involved and not the products themselves. European governments could design and implement bold policies, while Americans watched for ideas worth applying on their own shores.
Products do not confine themselves to national boundaries. As the drive to add waste concerns to producers' sphere of activity moves across the Atlantic, it draws American manufacturers and waste managers into its net.