“It is time we make the polluters pay”

Today, manufacturers profit from selling products containing hazardous substances while the cost of cleaning up the mess tends to be paid from the public purse. This is not only a waste of resources and an unfair distribution of responsibility, but a threat to the circular society as well. It is high time we put the decades-old polluter pays principle into practice.

22 Apr 2024

Headshots of Mikael Hedström CEO of Ragn-Sells Treatment & Detox Sweden, Magnus Uvhagen, CEO of Ragn-Sells Recycling Sweden and Susanna Lind, Head of Public Affairs & Government Relations Sweden at Ragn-Sells
Mikael Hedström CEO of Ragn-Sells Treatment & Detox Sweden, Magnus Uvhagen, CEO of Ragn-Sells Recycling Sweden and Susanna Lind, Head of Public Affairs & Government Relations Sweden at Ragn-Sells.

Many of the things we buy and use contain potentially harmful materials. When these things reach the end of their life span, they need to be properly handled to prevent hazardous substances from spreading into the environment. 

This treatment costs money, of course. So, who foots the bill? 

For decades, lawmakers around the world have embraced the idea of the so-called polluter pays principle. This principle, which underpins environmental policy and legislation, states that a company that causes environmental damage is responsible for taking the necessary preventive or remedial action and bearing all the associated costs.

The principle also has strong public support. A recent survey commissioned by Ragn-Sells in Sweden showed that two out of three respondents believe it is the manufacturer's responsibility to bear the cost of disposing of hazardous substances in their products. No alternative, such as “my municipality”, “waste management companies”, or “the store that sold the product”, collected above even 10 percent of the answers.

Despite the strong political and public support, the polluter pays principle is rarely implemented in practice.

The difficulty of making the costs of environmental impacts visible means that society often fails to place responsibility where it belongs. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is a rare successful example: anyone who wants to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has to buy allowances on the market. This 'cap and trade' system creates financial incentives for companies to reduce their emissions. Still, no attempt to introduce a similar scheme for other harmful emissions has proven fruitful.

A striking example of the polluter not paying is the widespread use of PFAS, a group of highly persistent and toxic chemical compounds. Although PFAS are known to be hazardous for humans and the environment, they are widely used in everything from cleaning and care products to cookware and clothing, mainly for their ability to repel water, dirt, and grease. In the EU alone, an estimated 75,000 tonnes of PFAS are released into the environment each year. As these substances are extremely persistent, the amount of PFAS in our environment will only continue to increase.  

However, awareness of the dangers of PFAS is growing rapidly. Recognising the immense health risks of the substances, the chemical authorities of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands have proposed a ban on nearly all manufacturing and sales of PFAS in the EU.

A recent court case in Sweden also illustrates how current environmental legislation fails to execute the polluter pays principle in practice. Residents of the small community of Kallinge in southern Sweden have suffered from high levels of PFAS in their drinking water for years. When the Supreme Court ruling came down, it fell to the municipal water company to compensate those affected, even though no one blames it for disseminating the chemicals. (The PFAS source was firefighting foam from a military training centre). So, instead of making the polluters pay for their mistake, the cleanup bill lands with the very same taxpayers who suffer from contaminated drinking water.

The price of buying 1,000 grams of a common PFAS chemical now stands at less than 10 euros − a fraction of the price of making sure that it does not end up in our environment, our food, or our drinking water. The cost of remediation almost always lands with the public purse, contrary to the intention of environmental legislation and the will of the public. 

In addition to the cost of decontamination, regular waste management expenses increase when waste is contaminated with substances that should not be recirculated. Moreover, contamination often makes it impossible to recover valuable raw materials from the waste, as it is difficult to ensure that it is completely free from toxins. This undermines the transition to a more circular economy and increases our dependence on the carbon-intensive extraction of virgin raw materials. 

No one should be able to profit from polluting our shared environment. By making manufacturers pay for decontamination, we are incentivising companies to ensure that their products are non-toxic and can be recirculated at the end of their life.

It is time the world took action.

As part of their push towards a more circular Europe, we call on the EU to:

  • Propose regulation aimed at allocating all social costs caused by the use of hazardous substances to the manufacturers, for example by making them liable for the disposal of their products even before they are put on the market. The regulation should be designed to target not only the most outrageous kinds of environmental crimes (the stereotype would be barrels of poisonous chemicals dumped in the woods) but the currently legal use of hazardous substances in everyday products.

While the EU has a key role in tackling the issue of toxic substances, individual Member States can also contribute. We propose the following measures:

  • Work within the EU to see to it that the upcoming revision of the Ecodesign Directive requires manufacturers to ensure that the design and composition of their products allow for recycling. The most effective opportunity to stop the spread of hazardous substances and the threat they pose to circularity is at the product design stage. 
  • Increase the dialogue with local circular actors, private as well as public. Those of us who work in the waste management industry see every day the problems caused by the legal and profitable use of hazardous substances further down the chain. We want to contribute to solutions that lead to a non-toxic and more circular society.

"Cui bono?" asked the Roman politician Cicero 2,000 years ago: "Who benefits?". The purpose of the rhetorical figure was to clarify the motive behind a crime in order to find the culprit. Today, it is a useful tool for identifying who profits from polluting society and make sure they bear the cost of cleaning up.

Susanna Lind, Head of Public Affairs
& Government Relations Sweden, Ragn-Sells

Mikael Hedström, CEO, Ragn-Sells Treatment & Detox Sweden
Magnus Uvhagen, CEO, Ragn-Sells Recycling Sweden