Early in my career, I was among a small group of architects and specifiers invited to Europe to learn about the state of the art in PVC building materials. At that time, the anti-PVC propaganda machine in the U.S. was picking up a lot of steam, preying on the ignorance of thousands of architects and persuading them (myself included) to believe that PVC was the “devil’s material.” We were told that PVC was filled with toxic substances like lead, cadmium and other heavy metals, was a major source of dioxin, impossible to recycle and produced by an industry that couldn’t care less about its environmental consequences. We were told that PVC was banned from use in many European countries.

While sitting in a conference room in one of the largest PCV manufacturing plants in Germany, I heard quite a different story. I learned that PVC, contrary to being a banned material, was in fact being produced and used in every European country and that it had never been banned for use in building materials. I learned that all forms of PVC were being recycled in Europe, in recycling facilities mandated by law and paid for by PVC manufacturers-something called Extended Producer Responsibility-making PVC by far one of the greenest building materials available in Europe from a cradle to grave perspective.

Real "Green"

The principle behind EPR was formulated in 1991 by Swedish professor Thomas Lindhqvist as:

“An environmental protection strategy to reach an environmental objective of a decreased total environmental impact from a product, by making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal of the product. The (EPR) is implemented through administrative, economic and informative instruments. The composition of these instruments determines the precise form of the (EPR).”

Every building product made today lays claim to being “green” in some way because every product can prove at least one of the many single attribute metrics (like recycled content, rapid renewability, location of manufacture, forest certification, VOC content, etc.) currently used to define a “green” material. In the U.S., the endless debate about these types of product characteristics gets us no closer to what really matters. What really matters when it comes to how green a product may or may not be is what happens to that product during its development, at the end of its life and who shoulders the environmental burden and costs.

A highly energy-efficient PVC window that ends up in the landfill is an unsustainable end to that product. The manufacturer of the window paid nothing for the environmental consequence of that window during its production and disposal and had no incentive to improve upon the product to make it easier and more economical to produce and dispose of in an environmentally friendly manner. Instead, U.S. citizens, governments and taxpayers are bearing the environmental burden. EPR changes that and has been shown in every case to have a dramatic, environmentally positive impact on products from cradle to grave.

EPR in the U.S.

Unlike European and Asian countries, the United States has not adopted a national EPR policy. Indeed, the U.S. definition of EPR is very different. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cooperated in the development of a 1997 study titled “Extended Product Responsibility: A New Principle For Product-Oriented Pollution Prevention” which explains that the “P” has been changed to “Product” in order to more accurately reflect the reality of EPR as a “shared responsibility” as opposed to that of the producer alone. This important distinction reflects the deep-rooted free market ideology in the U.S. Unfortunately, “shared responsibility” in practice does not have much efficacy, which is summed up nicely in a 2006 report by McKerlie Knight, and Thorpe which states that the concept of shared responsibility:

“… suggests that all parties with a role in designing, producing, selling or using a product are responsible for minimizing the environmental impact of the product over its life. In practice, this ‘shared responsibility’ extends beyond the producers and users of a product to include local governments and general taxpayers who incur the expense of managing products at their end-of-life as part of the residential waste stream. This shared approach does not clearly designate responsibility to any one party, diluting the impetus to advance waste prevention.”

Without strong incentives or regulatory requirements, there have been few adopters of EPR in the United States, even with its watered down definition. The examples cited in the EPA study, and others that have come out since, are limited to small-scale efforts, many of them now discontinued. Further impediments to the national adoption of EPR in the U.S. include the following, from a report titled “Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century” by INFORM Inc.:

Far less pressure on landfill space in the U.S. than in Europe or Japan.

Strong U.S. traditions of individualism and unfettered capitalism limit the types of government intervention that are acceptable politically.

Potential liability in implementing take-back programs, particularly for products with hazardous or toxic components.

Europe and Asia Lead the Way

In sharp contrast to the U.S. stance on EPR, most European countries wholeheartedly embrace the idea that producers should take on the burden of their products’ environmental impact.

EPR has been something that governments in Europe and Asia have been requiring of product manufacturers for more than 20 years. Laws have been passed in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan mandating extended producer responsibility for packaging, automobiles, automobile tires, electronics and construction materials with varying degrees of implementation and success.

The first implemented EPR program in Europe was a 1991 take-back law in Germany called Ordinance on Avoidance of Packaging Waste. This ordinance gave consumers the right to return product packaging where purchased and also required retailers to accept the packaging free of charge. The ordinance spawned the creation of third party entities that contracted with retailers for collecting the packaging waste and disposing of it in an environmentally responsible manner. Producers, to reduce disposal fees, developed lighter, more environmentally-friendly packaging.

Japan introduced the Home Appliance Recycling Law in 1998 which requires retailers to take back appliances from consumers for a small fee. The law has resulted in unexpected breakthroughs in Japanese electric and electronics Industries in the way that products are designed and manufactured. The law has forced producers to design appliances with materials that are easier to dispose of and easier to disassemble. Instead of going to landfills, appliances in Japan are carefully dismantled and constituent components and materials disposed of in the most environmentally beneficial way possible.

The Netherlands became the first European country to enact EPR take-back legislation for electronic equipment and appliances. The law requires retailers to take products back, free of charge, and recycle them. Large household appliances must meet an 80 percent recovery rate and a 75 percent recycling rate standard (by weight). Computer equipment must meet a 75 percent recovery rate and 65 percent recycling or reuse rate standard.

Korea established an EPR take-back requirement in 2003 for tires, lubricants, fluorescent lights, metal cans, glass and PET bottles and 15 types of electrical and electronic equipment. Recycling rates for these products have skyrocketed since the law went into effect. Producers collected and recycled only about 30,000 computers in 2002 but the number exceeded 250,000 in 2003 after enactment of the EPR law. It is still too early to prove a definitive link between the enactment of the law and product design changes, but producers report that changes are being made to reduce products’ environmental impacts as a result of the take-back requirement.


As EPR laws take hold, a wealth of evidence is being provided that shows the enormous impact such laws have on the environmental performance of products from cradle to grave. Although the U.S. has not adopted a national EPR policy, American companies that do business abroad are being forced to adopt EPR principles in order to sell products overseas, which automatically spills over to their operations in the U.S. EPR has been proven as an excellent pathway to rapid, meaningful and measureable environmental improvement of products throughout their life-cycle. We can expect to see more and more building materials included on EPR legislation lists as these programs continue to grow and flourish.