Listen to its advocates, and EPR sounds like some kind of miracle cure for Alberta’s waste woes.
Alberta municipalities have struggled with the soaring costs of recycling ever since China banned imports of many recyclables in 2017. A 2019 Alberta Municipalities study pegged the cost of recycling in Alberta at about $107 million a year, all paid by taxpayers.
Many communities have turned to extended producer responsibility (EPR) in response. EPR is a policy that puts responsibility for collecting and treating products at end-of-life on producers instead of taxpayers. This can involve mandatory waste diversion targets, deposit refunds (as seen in Alberta’s bottle depot program), disposal fees (like the environmental fees on Alberta tires), minimum recycled content rules, and public education.
New regulations set to take effect this Nov. 30 will establish EPR for paper, packaging, and household hazardous waste in Alberta. Producers will have to meet escalating waste diversion targets and provide free curbside and depot collection of recyclables to all communities starting in around 2025, lest they suffer fines of up to $500,000.
Alberta municipal leaders say EPR for packaging will mean more jobs, lower costs, and less waste sent to the landfill. But critics such as York University’s Cal Lakhan and Paul Deegan of News Media Canada call EPR a job killer that will jack up prices.
Diversion goes up
EPR programs have proliferated worldwide since the 1970s, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports. Waste per capita in OECD nations generally fell from 1995 to 2011, while material recovery rates rose to 33 per cent from 19 over that period — changes the OECD says were likely due in part to EPR, the adoption of which surged worldwide during these years.
Germany, France, and Italy all saw jumps in waste diversion for packaging following the introduction of EPR policies for it, a 2021 report for the National Waste and Recycling Association by Eunomia found. Germany had the most dramatic results, with its packaging diversion rates going from about 38 per cent in 1991 (the year before it started EPR for packaging) to 76 per cent in 2016.
“It’s pretty clear that EPR increases recycling rates,” says Reid Lifset, a research scholar from the Yale School of Environment who has studied EPR since the 1990s.
This is because EPR programs typically include mandatory targets, he explains. This forces producers to invest more in recycling to meet those targets, which results in better collection systems and more public education efforts.
Producers also have direct control over what goes into their products, unlike municipalities, notes Peter Hargreave, an environmental consultant who has studied EPR for about 16 years. This lets them design recycling systems which can process those materials, and should theoretically encourage them to make easy-to-recycle products.
It’s hard to say if EPR has actually led to more recyclable products, Lifset said — there’s not a lot of good research on this topic, and many factors besides EPR can cause a producer to change their packaging.
Michael Zabaneh, vice-president of sustainability for the Retail Council of Canada, says EPR has encouraged producers to use more PET plastic in packaging in recent years as PET was cheaper to recycle.
Hargreave says Canada won’t see widespread change in packaging without widespread EPR, as most companies make packaging decisions on a global scale.
Economic impacts questioned
EPR could impose considerable costs on Alberta’s newspaper sector, with Evan Jamison of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association putting those costs at $2 million a year.
“We feel this is a really boneheaded policy,” Deegan says, as well as a “job-killing tax” on journalism.
Deegan wants Alberta to exempt newspapers from EPR due to the industry’s many economic challenges and the importance of news to democracy.
Lakhan says recycling costs per tonne in Ontario jumped from $180 in 2005 to $400 in 2020, which he says was due in part to the introduction of EPR for packaging. (Ontario’s waste stream also shifted toward lightweight, hard-to-recycle plastics in this period, for example, which also raised costs.)
Lakhan argues that it is unrealistic to expect producers to simply absorb these higher recycling costs and not pass them on to customers through price hikes. His research suggests EPR could add $11 to $15 a week to the average grocery bill — a calculation he acknowledges relies on some “huge logical jumps.”
“Why costs go up is almost impossible to prove,” he says, as there are so many factors involved.
Zabaneh says retailers did not see big price jumps following the introduction of EPR for packaging elsewhere in Canada. Packaging typically represents less than two per cent of a product’s cost, so any increase in packaging costs (such as recycling fees) has little impact on price, especially when spread across hundreds of thousands of products.
“I’m not saying the price won’t go up,” he adds, but any change would be hard to spot.
Zabaneh cites a June 2022 Colombia University study which found that an America-wide EPR for packaging program would add up to $4 to the average home’s monthly grocery bill. EPR would raise costs for producers, but basic economics showed they could not simply pass on all those costs through higher prices, the study found — if they did, they would lose sales to competitors who absorbed more of those costs and raised prices less. Producers also tended to set their prices nationally, making it less likely that they would tweak prices if any one region brought in EPR.
Zabaneh says EPR creates jobs as you need more recycling employees to meet higher recycling targets. B.C. saw massive investment into its recycling sector once it brought in EPR for packaging, for example.
Zabaneh opposes an EPR exemption for newspapers, arguing that other producers should not have to pay for the newspaper industry’s waste. Hargreave says an exemption could be warranted given newspapers’ value to democracy, adding that B.C. and Ontario offered their papers EPR supports.
While it can fall flat if not implemented properly, Hargreave says EPR is a proven tool with which to improve environmental and economic outcomes. Alberta has learned important lessons from other jurisdictions by having enforceable targets and proper oversight in its EPR regulations.
“I think there’s huge potential for the province to grow economically as a result,” he says.