Can EPR turn back the rising tide of waste?

October 18, 2021 - 08:46

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming climate crisis has fallen down the agenda, with efforts to stave off future environmental catastrophe waylaid in favour of immediate public concerns.


Workers sorting and treating waste at a waste treatment plant in Cà Mau City. VNA/VNS Photo Huỳnh Thế Anh

By Ollie Arci and Ly Ly Cao

HÀ NỘI — As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming climate crisis has fallen down the agenda, with efforts to stave off future environmental catastrophe waylaid in favour of immediate public concerns.

However, as global leaders highlighted at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, humanity is on the edge of an abyss in terms of its heavily damaged ecosystems.

Last November, the Vietnamese Government adopted the amended Law on Environmental Protection, which provides a legal framework on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The application of the decree will be followed by a circular on January 1, 2022. Such a framework compels companies to find solutions and take ultimate responsibility for their plastic consumption and production.

In Việt Nam, the EPR concept was first introduced in the Law on Environmental Protection in 2005. However, the current EPR schemes are only modestly effective due to a lack of comprehensive targets, effective financial tools, or detailed guidance in implementation.

Under a strengthened EPR system, producers would take responsibility for the management of the disposal of products they produce, once those products are designated as no longer useful by consumers. This in turn would contribute to a circular economy, reduce pressure on landfills and help to ameliorate a problem that is too often ignored.

In practice, firms would have to deal with the collection; pre-treatment (sorting, dismantling or de-pollution); (preparation for) reuse; recovery (including recycling and energy recovery) or final disposal. 

As proposed in Việt Nam, under an EPR, producers would have to either organise a system of recycling for their products and packaging, reporting results annually to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, or make a financial contribution to the Việt Nam Environment Protection Fund to support product and packaging recycling. 

For some activists, such a requirement is vital to tackle the growing waste crisis which threatens to damage our shores and bury communities in trash.

“The time for implementing the EPR cannot be postponed. At least 80 per cent of the operating costs of the domestic solid waste management system are being subsidised from the public budget," Quách Thị Xuân, coordinator of the Việt Nam Zero Waste Alliance, spoke at an online event titled ‘The urgency of putting the EPR decree into practice,' launched last month.

“Many localities are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, but a lack of revenue means they are unable to pay solid waste management costs. For example, Hội An owes an urban environment company about VNĐ8 billion (US$352 million),” she added.

Việt Nam is ranked fourth in the top countries causing ocean plastic pollution, while 15-16 per cent of total waste in urban areas and 45-60 per cent in rural areas is not collected for any kind of treatment.

Businesses have been pressing to delay the implementation of EPR, saying they are facing difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But not every business is in trouble. In 2020, despite the pandemic, sales of consumer goods grew 6.8 per cent and are forecast to rise at least 9 per cent this year, Xuân added.

The issue extends beyond packaging and plastic straws. As multinational companies continue to develop, sell and ship new electronic equipment and products every year, the number of these items ending up in landfills rises exponentially. As Việt Nam seeks to go ‘digital’ and have its entire population using smartphones by 2023, the associated e-waste is sure to place a huge burden on the country’s recycling system. Right now, Việt Nam’s biggest FDI enterprises are only starting to face the problem.

Nguyễn Hoàng Phượng, a policy and law consultant, also spoke during the online event on the EPR.

According to Phượng: “LG Việt Nam has only one collecting centre at their own manufacturing plant in Hải Phòng. Panasonic, at first only had two centres accepted recalled items. But it is opening others in Hải Phòng, Đà Nẵng, Cần Thơ, Nghệ An and Thanh Hóa. However, they note that they only receive genuine products, without broken components. And customers are responsible for transporting products to the centres, emphasising that no gift policy is applied to exchanges.”

These initiatives represent some small steps towards addressing the threat of e-waste. But other groups are taking the issue more seriously.

Phượng added: “One of the brightest is Việt Nam Recycles Programme, a free e-waste recall, treatment and recycling programme initiated by electronics manufacturers including HP and Apple Việt Nam, and managed by Reverse Logistics. They issue clear information to consumers, provide services, and collect waste at home. In 2020, despite the impact of the pandemic, they still collected more than 30 tonnes of e-waste, mostly from households."

According to Phượng, before an EPR system can be implemented successfully, the Government needs to define a mandatory recycling ratio, without which manufacturers transfer the recycling responsibility to their customers. Currently, information on EPR is very limited and there is no pressure to implement mandatory recycling, resulting in almost no incentives for businesses to cooperate or set up mechanisms for collective action.

These kinds of policies only go some way to tackling the waste problem on our horizon.

“While EPR is a necessary and vital part of the solution to packaging waste and pollution, it is by itself insufficient and needs to be complemented by a wider set of policies, and voluntary industry action and innovation towards a circular economy for packaging,” says The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-registered charity which promotes the circular economy.

For a comprehensive solution to the challenge of waste, the EPR is a good starting point. But such measures will need buy-in from a wider range of stakeholders, including ourselves as consumers. If we don’t want to find ourselves buried in trash, a whole community approach is needed to push reusing, reducing and recycling as a priority. — VNS