Jane Molony, acting CEO of Fibre Circle, the producer responsibility organisation for the paper and packaging sector, on the impact of the EPR regulations

Q: What is the intention of the new Extender Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations that came into effect in May?
A: The regulations hold businesses accountable to reduce the environmental impact of their products and packaging at the end of their life. This, however, is not just about the post-consumer phase of the supply chain – producers’ and importers’ responsibilities span the entire product life cycle, changing how producers, brand owners, retailers and importers design, make, sell and keep their products in the recycling loop as far as practically possible, and reduce the amount of waste that is landfilled.

The new regulations also include taking a collaborative approach with municipalities and the informal sector to increase the recovery of identified products from municipal waste, and to work together with large companies, small businesses and informal collectors.

Q: What role does Fibre Circle play?
A: The regulations obligate the producer to establish their own EPR scheme, join an existing one, or form a producer responsibility organisation (PRO) to draft and implement a scheme and pay an EPR fee to fund it. As an existing PRO, we encourage the pooling of EPR resources that relate to paper and paper packaging under one umbrella, for good reason.

Fibre Circle, a non-profit organisation, works with companies to help them keep in step and ahead of legislation, and supports its members and the broader value chain by diverting paper and paper-based packaging away from SA’s landfills and towards recycling programmes. The effectiveness of the paper industry’s efforts is clearly apparent when you consider that SA has averaged a 70% paper-recovery rate over the past four years – without legislation – thanks to the impetus of paper manufacturers and fibre processors, and the larger recycling network of buy-back centres and informal recycling collectors.

In terms of EPR there will be clusters of members manufacturing or importing the same or similar products and which, by implication, require similar handling at their end of life. By working together – and pooling resources – we can be more efficient in promoting the greater message of recycling to a broader audience.

Fibre Circle has also invested in various research projects to optimise the recycling of materials. Examples include an investigation into optimising the process to recover the fibre from materials that are currently difficult to recycle, such as potato bags and label backing papers. Another project looks at the life-cycle analysis of a paper product to assess the environmental impacts, from raw material to disposal.

Q: EPR is increasingly seen as a policy tool to transition to a circular economy. What are the paper recycling considerations?
A: All paper products, by nature, are renewable and recyclable. They become difficult to recycle when other materials (wet strength additives or plastic layers) are added to give them specific functionality – in turn, they require additional input to recover the fibre. All materials can be recovered and EPR will help drive the mechanisms needed to effectively and easily recover materials from the waste stream so that they are clean and easy to manage.

This may require investment in new infrastructure to increase recovery, which will be done in alliance with other packaging-related PROs, and technology and systems to either improve the recoverability or to re-process the products into a viable material for re-use.

Q: What are the obligations in complying with EPR, and the consequences of not doing so?
A: All producers and PROs are required to register with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment within six months from 5 May, and must thereafter submit externally audited annual financial plans and budgets. Bi-annually, they must prove compliance with EPR regulations and the progress made.

Producers must pay an EPR fee to fund the scheme to cover the full cost of recovery and treatment of its pre- and post-consumer packaging sold into the SA market. Also required is a life-cycle assessment on products within defined parameters, and producers must implement environmental labels within the next three years. In addition, there is also an obligation for the development of a transformation charter. Fortunately this is already in place for the forestry and paper sector.

Failure to comply under the draft regulations will be an offence, which may, on conviction, lead to an ‘appropriate fine’, or imprisonment for a period of 15 years.

Q: What are some of the technologies that can be used that satisfy EPR regulations?
A: Paper is one of the world’s oldest technologies itself, and through innovation we are able to make use of its very foundation – cellulose – to reduce the weight of the packaging, and employ cellulose-based barriers in food packaging instead of plastic laminates that render the paper difficult to recycle. Other solutions may include the printing used on packaging and the impact of dyes.

On matters of biodegradability, a product is only biodegradable or compostable under certain conditions, with the right degree of temperature, moisture and air flow. That said, with EPR the producer is obliged to manage their end-of-life product. Products should not end up in the environment to degrade, even if deemed to be biodegradable. Composting is one technology available for the recovered material once recycling is no longer possible.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Francesca Cockcroft

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