California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Stewardship

Frequently Asked Questions

Read on to learn answers to some commonly asked questions about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), also known as Product Stewardship. EPR is a policy priority for CalRecycle and provides an opportunity to use the market to help drive environmental benefits.

What is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?

EPR is a strategy to place a shared responsibility for end-of-life product management on the producers, and all entities involved in the product chain, instead of the general public; while encouraging product design changes that minimize a negative impact on human health and the environment at every stage of the product's lifecycle. This allows the costs of treatment and disposal to be incorporated into the total cost of a product. It places primary responsibility on the producer, or brand owner, who makes design and marketing decisions. It also creates a setting for markets to emerge that truly reflect the environmental impacts of a product, and to which producers and consumers respond.

What does CalRecycle mean by an EPR "Framework" approach?

Rather than implementing EPR through individual legislation for each product, a framework approach would establish one law that gives State government the authority, through regulation, to address multiple products. Currently the State addresses products with challenging disposal issues through a patchwork of product-specific or substance-specific programs. These programs require many State staff and resources. EPR would allow the State to develop a public process to identify priority products, and then use this process to select products covered by a Product Stewardship Program. This law would also provide State government with the authority to develop rules, set goals and targets, and establish oversight so a level playing field exists among all producers. Overall, a framework approach would increase science-based decision making and streamline government.

Why change the current system?

Californians send to landfills about the same amount of trash as they did 20 years ago. We recycle a lot more, which is great, but recycling alone is not enough. Placing potentially useful resources in the ground is not sustainable--it is wasteful.

Also, it is expensive to safely manage products containing hazardous or toxic substances-- in California alone these costs may be on the order of $500 million annually. Local governments need relief from these costs. The EPR approach calls for producers to ensure safe management of products they produce. This change sends economic signals to the producers and provides an incentive for producers to find more economically viable methods of production resulting in fewer hazardous or toxic substances and less overall waste. Right now, for most products, there is not an economic link between production and waste management costs. Until that link is made through EPR, product producers have little incentive to change product and packaging design.

In short, EPR can help fix an environmental problem and provide a more equitable distribution of costs. EPR can encourage green design and reductions in disposal, toxic releases, and emissions of climate change gases in order to improve human health and our environment.

If EPR is a market-based approach, is there still a role for government?

Yes, just not in the traditional way. Instead of government providing waste management programs, EPR calls for producers to design and implement product stewardship programs that can achieve waste reduction targets set by the State. Producers may carry out this responsibility individually or participate in a group with others, called a stewardship organization.

Another unique feature of a product stewardship approach is that the program is financed and managed by the private sector. This minimizes the government role and allows product stewardship organizations greater flexibility to quickly respond to market changes. That being said, government still has a critical function.

A fundamental government role is to ensure compliance, review audited financial statements and reports, and enforce a level playing field, which refers to having the same rules apply to all producers. It also has a role to protect the public interest and the environment by establishing performance goals and recovery rates. Just as it is hard to imagine a ball game without players, there is no game without referees and a rule book.

Who exactly are "producers"? Why not call them manufacturers?

Producers would be defined as either the direct manufacturer of a product that sells or distributes in California under its own name or a brand name; an entity that is not a manufacturer but is the owner or licensee of a trademark or brand name of a product sold or distributed in California; or an entity that imports the product into California for sale or distribution.

CalRecycle does not refer to "producers" as "manufacturers" because the term "manufacturer" is too narrow. For example, many manufacturers are located overseas and work under contract to the brand owner. It is the brand owner who makes design and marketing decisions. Also, many retailers are producers because they sell products under their own brand. Generally, the producer will be the brand owner.

What products will be affected?

Products have not yet been selected. The state seeks the authority to develop a public process for product selection. Initially, a few products would be selected. Eventually, it could expand to most products that make a significant impact on our society in terms of the effect on the environment, public health, and costs to taxpayers, while offering a good potential for environmental improvements. There are numerous products that meet those criteria, and the legislative process consumes a great deal of resources. CalRecycle recommends a more streamlined framework approach, rather than looking at one product at a time. This approach is called an EPR Framework approach.

Would CalRecycle prescribe how covered products will be designed?

No. It is not the government’s role to dictate product design through product stewardship. A fundamental premise of CalRecycle's EPR Framework is to ensure that producers have the maximum flexibility to design product stewardship programs that best meet both the needs of their customers and the program performance goals, such as collection rates. It is in this way that product stewardship indirectly encourages green design because the less toxic and easier to recycle a product is, the less expensive the collection and recycling system becomes.

Is CalRecycle trying to establish a "one-size-fits-all" solution?

No. The EPR Framework approach would be flexible and have the ability to be customized for each product category. A consistent and predictable process for each product type will make it easier for all stakeholders to understand how to participate in the process. All decisions would be made through a public process.

While goals would be established by State government with public input, producers would determine how to achieve the goals. This would allow producers who best know their products the opportunity to identify the most efficient system for reducing waste and recovering materials from their products.

What are the different types of fees used in EPR programs? Which is best to use?

Product stewardship programs are financed in many different ways. Fees can be placed on a product at the time of sale, and that fee may or may not be visible on the consumer’s receipt. CalRecycle’s EPR Framework is silent on the financing of product stewardship programs, other than to say that it discourages end-of-life fees, that is, fees placed on a product at the time a consumer wishes to recycle or dispose of the product. This is because end-of-life fees may discourage consumers from returning the product for proper disposal or recycling, and encourage illegal dumping. The preferred financing approach may vary from product to product so producers need flexibility to select a financing mechanism, which is then described in a producer’s Product Stewardship Plan. For more information on financing mechanisms for product stewardship programs, see Framework for Evaluating End-of-Life Product Management Systems in California, a report commissioned by CalRecycle in 2006 to identify financing options for certain universal waste products in California.

Are "take back programs" considered EPR programs?

Sometimes. EPR occurs when the producers are ultimately responsible for managing their discarded products. When state government collects an advanced recycling fee at point of sale and uses the fee to subsidize a government-run recycling program, this does not make the critical link between production and waste management costs. Government-run, tax-supported "take-back" programs can create costly bureaucracies and leave the producers with no incentive to re-design or provide for enhanced recovery of old products.

Does the EPR Framework require producers to engage in anti-trust or anti-competitive conduct?

No. The EPR Framework does not mandate producers to engage in antitrust or anti-competitive conduct. The EPR Framework was designed to give producers wide discretion in how to design product stewardship plans, participate in stewardship organizations, and otherwise achieve compliance. Producers are therefore encouraged to consult with counsel in determining how to best design and implement compliance with the EPR Framework in order to satisfy the requirements of state and federal law.

What safeguards will ensure that all producers participate in a product stewardship program?

Eliminating "free-riders" is a common concern and important for establishing a level playing field among producers. Product stewardship programs typically manage “free-riders” through several approaches:

  • Right to sell. After a good faith effort to inform a non-participating producer about its responsibilities, a common penalty is to deny a producer the right to sell a product in a state or province.
  • Imposition of fines for non-compliance. For example, in British Columbia, Canada, producers face potential fines up to $200,000 for non-compliance.
  • Industry self-policing. Producers and product stewardship organizations who responsibly implement product stewardship programs often help identify free-riders and report them to enforcement agencies. Producers operating in compliance benefit from full producer participation, so there is an incentive for them to play this role.
  • Adequate resources for government oversight. To achieve a level playing field, enforcement agencies must have enough resources to follow through and enact penalties, when appropriate.

What would happen to the existing reuse, recycling, and waste management infrastructure under an EPR Framework scenario?

Based on EPR programs elsewhere, the current infrastructure would likely change and expand. In some cases, the producers would pay another organization, called a stewardship organization, to provide local services to take back and recycle designated products and packaging. That organization would negotiate contracts with local reuse, recycling, and waste management companies. For example, in British Columbia, the stewardship organization Product Care pays contracted return centers for each can of paint or other designated product collected at public facilities, private collections, or retail outlets.

A producer could also choose to set up its own take back program, just for its product. Sony, Inc. and Caterpillar, Inc. are examples of existing individual programs. When a producer sets up its own take back program, this creates an even stronger incentive to design products that are easy to refurbish and reuse or recycle because the producer directly benefits--these benefits are not shared with other producers. Even in these situations, contractors are likely to collect and recycle returned products.

What assurances would be in place so products are reused or recycled responsibly, rather than sent to a landfill or incinerator?

For each product category, the state would establish recovery rates and could establish other stewardship requirements after consultations with producers and other stakeholders. Producers would have to submit annual reports covering their progress toward achieving the recovery rates and the recovery rates could be adjusted over time to encourage higher levels of environmental and public health protection. Current laws governing the safe and proper handling of materials would remain in effect.

How can I get involved and show my support for EPR in California?

CalRecycle's EPR website has a list of resources and identifies organizations actively supporting EPR. For example, the California Product Stewardship Council has a variety tools to assist local governments, businesses, health officials, citizens and others who are interested in advancing EPR.

Have a question that we haven't answered?

Send your questions to the contact email at the bottom of all EPR pages.

Last updated: January 13, 2014
Extended Producer Responsibility and Stewardship http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/EPR/
Contact: EPR@calrecycle.ca.gov (916) 341-6449