The concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is often discussed in the circular economy space, the idea being to have producers shoulder more burden of managing, recycling, and disposing of waste. It also calls attention to the need for producers to consider how their product will be handled by consumers, waste infrastructure, and whether it can be made more environmentally sound overall.  

The ethos behind EPR stems in part from the unfair blame and responsibility placed on individuals for their environmental behaviour. We now know that large corporations and the world’s wealthiest one percent are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental harm. Yet, many consumers are all too familiar with directives about limiting meat consumption, not buying fast fashion, or reducing their use of plastic. While these are all commendable (and sometimes necessary) activities, EPR is part of the pushback to shift the narrative from each person’s “carbon footprint”, to calling on the world’s top actors to do better.  

With this in mind, how should we characterize the largely individual task of sorting household waste? Recently, residents in Victoria, Australia were introduced to an updated collection system, with a new purple-lid bin to sort out glass items. The program also set the target of having residents include “soft plastics” in the already-established yellow bins by 2030. Currently, residents are asked to store soft plastics at home and drop them off at a designated location or recycling centre, although unfortunately, the inconvenience means much of that waste ends up in garbage bins. Many Australians applauded the introduction of a new bin for making their lives easier; though with four different bins, and some remaining exclusions as to what goes in each, the expectations on individual residents are still significant.  

Of course, every waste collection program comes with accompanying education for the public – there’s an adjustment period for any change, and adding a new bin may indeed make lives easier in the long run. Since recycling was first introduced in North America, waste collection has gone through many iterations, each with a change meant to make the collection, sorting and disposal more streamlined.  

In Canada, for example, each major city has slightly different approaches to collecting. Many use the widely recognizable blue bin (plastics and glass), black bin (cardboard and paper), and garbage bin system, with many cities having adopted a green bin for compost. There are also incentives to produce less garbage; in many cities, green bins are collected weekly, but garbage, only bi-weekly. In Montreal, recycling isn’t sorted in households at all, but at a facility post-collection.  

The decisions for each city depend on a number of factors including budget, population, resources, and waste management infrastructure. It’s also important to remember that a robust recycling system, such as the four bins in Victoria, Australia, doesn’t necessarily equal robust management. Indeed, lots of waste (sometimes even organic material), is diverted to landfills when it is unable to be properly sorted at a facility; think products like medication blister packs, which are made with a combination of plastics, aluminium, and paper.  

Ultimately, consumers can’t be taken out of the equation when it comes to waste management. Even when industry and government partners take on more responsibility by providing resources, information, and management, waste generated at home will always be a factor. Education and initiatives to get the public on board are important, otherwise, any system runs the risk of being too convoluted and pushing many people to opt out altogether. 

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