Annex F. 20 years of EPR in France: Achievements, lessons learned and challenges ahead

This note does not intend to give a full description of French EPR schemes, but rather aims to highlight a number of key design elements for EPR schemes, specific features worth considering, as well as attention points, drawing on the French experience to date. For more detailed descriptions of some of the French EPR schemes, please refer to the case studies set up by the European Commission.

1. Overview of French EPR schemes

  • 14 schemes, covering a significant part of household waste

    For the first time in 1992, French authorities decided to apply the EPR model to tackle household packaging waste. This was the first large-scale EPR scheme to be designed in France. Twenty years later, it remains the largest French scheme, channeling over EUR 600 million yearly towards packaging waste management.

    Since then, many more schemes (14 in total) have become operational, mainly in the 2000s. Some of them stem from EU directives – sometimes EPR is directly required by the directives (WEEE, batteries, ELV), and sometimes France decided to set up EPR schemes where EU directives did not explicitly ask for it (e.g. packaging). There is also a variety of purely domestic schemes – including tyres, graphic papers, and textiles. The latest generation of schemes (furniture, infectious healthcare, dispersed hazardous waste) is just starting operations. While most schemes focus on household waste, some also deal with professional waste (e.g. WEEE, furniture).

Box F.1. A recent, innovative EPR scheme for furniture waste

The furniture scheme is one of the latest-born (2012) of French EPR schemes. Covering both household and professional furniture waste, it is intended to generate over EUR 300 million a year to help develop furniture reuse and recycling, and help create jobs and structure industrial activities around furniture waste management – leading to the creation of many new companies, including in relation to mattress and wood recycling, which were not profitable enough to generate sustainable activities before the scheme. The scheme also strongly promotes furniture reuse, closely involving social economy structures in its organisation model.

  • Producers must organise or finance waste management operations

    All schemes are based on making marketers responsible for managing their end-of-life products. Marketers can decide to manage waste in an individual way (which can be an appropriate solution for very vertical distribution systems with robust reverse logistics), but most producers decide to opt for collective organisations – these collective PROs, called “éco-organisms” (typically one single PRO for each scheme), are always not-for-profit entities, and can be organised in two general models:

    • In “organisational” schemes (e.g. WEEE), PROs are directly in charge of organising waste management operations. To do so, they collect fees from producers and use these funds to contract with waste management operators.

  • In “financial” schemes (e.g. packaging, graphic papers), PROs are not directly in charge of waste management operations. They use fees collected from producers to support municipalities, who remain in charge of waste management.

  • An inclusive governance model

    All schemes feature an inclusive governance model associating all stakeholders – producers, municipalities, waste management operators, environmental NGOs, consumer organisations, public authorities. All stakeholders have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making on the design and ambition of the scheme.

    PROs need to be “approved” by public authorities every six years. All schemes are based on a 6-year cycle, with an in-depth stakeholder consultation process during the last year of the approval period, which leads to the drafting of updated ‘terms of reference’ for the upcoming period. These terms of reference include performance objectives as well as financial and operational modalities. Once approved, PROs enjoy a good level of flexibility regarding the organisation of their day-to-day operations, provided that they do not deviate from the objectives specified in the ‘terms of reference’.

  • Significant financial flows mobilised

    All schemes are expected to generate a total of approximately EUR 1.4 billion/yr by 2015, of which around EUR 700 million will be redistributed to municipalities. This accounts for a significant part of the total costs of national household waste management (EUR 9.4 billion/yr).


2. Focus on specific design features and attention points

In general, French stakeholders acclaim the EPR model as positive and consider that it contributed to structure large-scale industrial waste management activities, and delivered good performance in terms of collection and recycling in many areas. Over the years, management of the schemes has grown more mature and delivered a number of lessons giving access to a variety of significant design features, some of which are detailed below, alongside with the identified areas for possible progress.

  • Producers in the driving seat… but under scrutiny

    One significant element that is at the very root of the EPR system is the fact that producers must be responsible for waste management activities – but in a context where many other stakeholders also play a role at all stages of the waste management process (consumers, municipalities, waste treatment operators…). This raises the question as to how to strike the right balance between making producers responsible and associating other stakeholders.

    Over the years, France’s position has been to consistently (constantly?) place producers in the driving seat, meaning that not only are producers responsible for paying waste management activities, but also for settingup PROs themselves and organising the governance of these PROs. Thus, PROs cannot be seen as ‘service providers’ for producers – it would be more correct to say that they ‘embody’ the producers community. In this context, producers are responsible for all the operational decisions taken regarding the way the scheme is run.

    In parallel, public authorities should pilot the system, by giving clear orientations at critical moments in the life of the scheme, and other stakeholders should be associated to the governance of the whole scheme, in order to remain informed and to actively provide their guidance and input on the way the scheme is managed. This collective governance is seen as a critical element of success, and all stakeholders consider that the dialogue created and sustained through the scheme per se has a tremendous influence on its overall performance.

    Nevertheless, while all stakeholders must participate in defining general orientations, especially in intense periods of (re-)approval of the schemes, they must not end up micro-managing PROs. The same applies to public authorities who need to keep their distance in a “command and control” manner. Their role is to ensure that ambitious yet realistic objectives are assigned to PROs, that appropriate indicators are in place (typically separate collection rate, recycling rate, sometimes reuse rate), and to follow up and take sanctions when necessary.

  • Performance requires stability and some degree of harmonisation

    With four recently-created schemes (2009) still in the process of starting operations, most stakeholders consider that the priority is not to create additional schemes, but rather to focus on existing schemes to improve their performance and/or address critical design issues.

    With 15 schemes running in parallel, harmonisation is also an important task – reproducing good practice from one scheme to the next, finding common solutions is an essential element of credibility for all schemes, as well as for the public authorities managing them.

    For instance, recently addressed cross-cutting questions include:

    • Addressing potential free-riders by proposing and implementing appropriate control operations – a harmonised approach across schemes allows for wider communication and awareness raising.

    • Developing a credible system to control PROs themselves – for a long time, “un‐approving” was the only possibility for public authorities facing a “rogue” PRO, but this proved to be an empty threat as it meant risking to put down the whole waste management system. A more progressive and therefore more credible toolbox of warnings and sanctions across all schemes was put into place.

    • Organising relationships between stakeholders – for instance, guidelines and safeguards have been developed to ensure that sound competition rules are respected between PROs (often “single buyer” by construction in the waste management market) and their waste management operator clients.

    • Tackling new challenges including internet sales – where some producers can avoid national regulations through fully dematerialised business models. Dialogue is underway with representatives of online-selling producers, although it remains clear that such models will continue to create difficulties in the future and could benefit from international co-operation.

Box F.2. The “Triman” label for recyclable products

pictureIn order to improve sorting performance, French law requires that a common label be set up, applicable to all recyclable products covered by an EPR scheme, indicating to consumers that said product needs to be sorted. To that end, the “Triman” logo (see left) has been introduced in 2015.

The benefit of a scheme that applies across product groups is that it makes it possible to communicate more widely to a large audience based on one label, rather than on a variety of labels for each type of product.

  • EPR schemes as a driver for “circular economy”

    In times of economic downturn, mobilising political momentum around environmental issues can be a challenge. However, recent high-level stakeholder consultations (“Environmental Conference”, September 2013) highlighted the broad enthusiasm across French stakeholders to develop new production and consumption models focusing on the concept of “circular economy” – moving away from a “linear” model of extraction, consumption and dumping.

    EPR schemes have an important part to play in developing such “circular” models. They allow for an inclusive approach covering all stages of a product’s lifecycle, from its (eco-) design to its multiple phases of reuse and recycling.

    They also provide a very attractive political narrative by actively linking environmental ambitions and benefits to enhanced economic and social conditions – feeding a virtuous circle of job creation with environmental benefits.

    Indeed, among the economic advantages of EPR schemes experienced, the pre-financing of recycling activities that could otherwise not be self-sufficient stands out. It was noticed that EPR schemes channel steady financial flows to make recycling chains more sustainable and less dependent on the great variability of commodity prices. With contracts between PROs and operators established for periods of three to six years, operators are fully in the position to invest in the required infrastructures.

Box F.3. Creating jobs through WEEE recycling

In France, over five years the WEEE recycling activities have created at least 30 new plants and more than 3 000 jobs (of which over 1 500 are qualified as “social economy” jobs) directly related to the sorting, depollution and recovery of metals and plastics from WEEE. The biggest of these plants employs 180 people, ensuring treatment of about 50 000 tonnes of WEEE per year, including fine-sorting of plastics.

  • Using social economy to catalyse waste management operations

    Several French EPR schemes have historically involved stakeholders from social economy networks, including charities or social economy companies. This was very much the case in the textiles scheme, but also prominent in WEEE or furniture schemes, especially for repairing and reuse activities.

    While social economy cannot be involved at all stages of all schemes, French regulations will soon require negotiations within each EPR scheme to address to what extent social economy can be involved in their operations and to introduce facilitating measures to that end.

  • Exploring possible ways to promote a full life cycle approach (prevention, eco-design)

    The principle of EPR schemes is to ensure that producers assume responsibility for their end-of-life products. The intention is to drive producers towards internalising end-of-life costs in their business models, as well as moving towards a full life-cycle perspective on their products. In particular, robust eco-design at the very beginning of the cycle can be identified as an efficient way of avoiding significant costs when the product is eventually discarded.

    To implement this “full life-cycle” approach in practice, a number of concrete tools are proposed:

    • all PROs need to promote prevention actions and eco-design among producers – some schemes even define quantified prevention targets, e.g. an objective to reduce packaging volumes by 100 000 tonnes over five years for the packaging scheme.

    • all EPR schemes must define “differentiated fees” rewarding pioneers (producers abiding by eco-design criteria will pay a lesser fee) or punishing laggards (greater fees for e.g. products that hinder sorting processes). Stakeholders generally find these “differentiated fees” interesting, especially as they help create dialogue between producers and waste management operators. Some also point out that such criteria would be more efficient if developed at a European or larger, scale;

    • each scheme features specific quantified objectives, tailored to its specific waste management model (e.g. reuse targets for textiles, standards for downstream recycled materials for packaging).

Box F.4. Promoting paper recycling with differentiated fees

The “graphic papers” scheme was re-approved at the end of 2012. Extensive consultations took place on how to promote eco-design, including via the use of differentiated fees. It was finally decided that producers whose papers incorporate more than 50% of recycled materials would benefit from a 10% bonus (i.e. pay 10% less on their fee). This helps encourage producers to undertake concrete eco-design actions.

3. To conclude – EPR as a versatile tool, relevant for future challenges

While EPR schemes cannot be considered a silver bullet to address waste management – especially as they focus on specific products and cannot provide a solution for e.g. residual waste, and remain very oriented towards household waste – seen from a government perspective, they can be a powerful tool to develop robust waste policies at relatively affordable costs.

One element that can be appreciated is the versatile nature of this tool. With regular revisions of collective expectations towards each scheme (in our case every six years), it is possible to channel activities in the right direction and to adjust trajectories in a dynamic manner whenever needed. This needs, of course, to be well balanced leaving sufficient visibility to economic stakeholders, especially producers, but without putting too much pressure on them.

As new challenges appear, EPR schemes could become part of the solution:

  • EPR schemes could contribute to incentivize producers to find operational answers to the need for new prospects regarding strategic metals/rare earths recycling.

  • Pressure is growing to relocate industries close to where waste is produced. While this cannot be achieved all the time, especially in a globalised context, EPR schemes can be a promising tool to foster a “principle of proximity” approach and maximise local waste treatment.

  • More generally, EPR schemes can be a robust tool to consistently and methodically organize the exploitation of “urban mines” (resource flows in big cities, resources accumulated in infrastructures such as housing and transport) in the future. French EPR schemes have provided through information gathered from producer registries, extremely valuable knowledge and databases that help to understand and anticipate potential resource flows, predictable waste quantities, nature, and matter contents – the strategic interest of which is self-evident in a long-term perspective. In a globalised market economy, the collective effort organised in a given territory through an EPR approach can and should be a way for this territory to strengthen its capacity to become more resilient and self-sufficient, in a sustainable manner.