Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Revision of the Waste Directive and Prospects for a European Circular Economy

by Duccio Bianchi

The European circular economy is shaping up, at least in terms of objectives. The proposal for a new waste directive sets ambitious targets for recycling, while at the same time reducing space for other forms of waste disposal: landfills and energy recovery.

In particular, the target of +70% by 2030 for recycling of urban waste indicates the resource base on which to implement the circular economy of the EU. The big jump requested in the integration between waste management and industrial, distribution and consumption policies represents a challenge in many respects. However, the benefits that would derive from this would be extremely important: up to 870,000 new jobs and a reduction of CO2 emissions between 300 and 400 million tons.

 

The proposal for a waste directive presented at the commission on 2nd July 2014, in the framework of a packet of measures aimed at promoting circular economy, is the first important regulatory step of the strategy for resource efficiency, already contained in the Europe 2020 agenda for an intelligent, sustainable and inclusive growth. 

This proposal is the result of a wide consultation with stakeholders and it also complies with the legal obligation of re-examining the objectives (recovery and recycling) contained in directives on waste, landfills and packaging. 

Although formally in continuity with the European regulatory tradition on waste and with the “communitarian hierarchy”, the proposal also presents various innovative aspects. 

This change is visible in the set of objectives. The system of the proposed objectives shifts the focus on the re-use and recycle of matter (although prevention is still present, but with no mention of the instruments to achieve it), while energy recovery becomes a secondary variable and even disappears from the set of objectives. The proposal sets – although moving them, for the whole of the Union, to 2020, 2025 and 2030 – a simple but dramatic series of targets:

  • 50% recycling by 2020 and 70% urban waste recycling by 2030; a net recycling of matter of 70% by 2030 means the achievement, in all member states, of a target which today is achieved only by a few regions and that represents more than double the current level in 17 out of the 28 member states;
  • the reduction of waste to be sent to landfills below 25%, with the ban on recyclable or biodegradable material, by 2025 and a potential disappearance of landfills by 2030; this target is very close to achievement at the European level (the EU as a whole uses landfills for 27% of its waste) and it is already implemented by seven states (six of which are already below 3%) in the centre-north, although in other seven states landfills are used for 70% of waste disposal; 
  • a revision of the objectives of the packaging directive, from which the references to energy recovery disappear, and in which new targets for recycling are set, to be achieved by 2020 (60% recycling of material), 2025 (70% recycling) and 2030 (80% recycling), detailing the objectives for each material. Between 2025 and 2030 they should reach 60% for recycling of plastic packaging, 80% for wood, 90% for metal, glass, paper and cardboard. 
  • The “hierarchy” is not under discussion, but in practice energy recovery becomes only one of the possible treatments of residual waste. On the other hand, the higher presence of renewables in the conventional energy system (which annuls or reduces the environmental preference for energy recovery from waste) and the transformation of landfills from biological reactors into deposits of mineralized waste (which annuls or drastically reduces the emissions from landfills) pose real questions on the coherence and validity of the end of the hierarchy itself, at least in some respects. 

This is the direction. It shifts the focus of waste management to recovery and recycling. It therefore poses a problem of technological feasibility and economic sustainability of recycling such huge quantities of waste. 

By putting the revision of waste regulation in the framework of policies of “circular economy” the need for an integration between waste management and industrial processes of production, distribution and consumption is strengthened. The aim of waste management policies is to reintroduce used products in the consumption circuit (re-use) or production circuit (recycle). This is in line with the idea of circular economy, in which somebody’s waste becomes somebody else’s resources, unlike the linear economy, where once consumption is over, the cycle of that product is entirely finished, forcing the economic chain to endlessly continue with the same scheme: extraction, production, consumption, disposal. 

The waste directive, with its system of objectives and the strengthening of schemes of responsibility extended to producers (the most efficient instrument in stimulating recycling created by the European Union) thus becomes instrumental in implementing and improving a green economy. This is primarily done through the creation of new chains of recovery of industrial material. The proposal of the directive does not create new materials or new schemes of extended responsibility, but reaching the target will require, at least, a strong development of the supply chains of furnishing products and textile waste (on this, in France, two new schemes of extended responsibility have been implemented, through Eco-Mobilier and Eco-Tlc), in addition to the recovery of organic waste and the packaging and graphic paper. 

According to studies carried out by the Commission, the measures included in this review of the legislation will lead to the creation of over 180,000 jobs under the EU aegis by 2030, in addition to further 400,000 which, according to estimates, will result from the implementation of waste legislation currently in place. Both separate waste collection and the preparation for recycling (including composting) are labour-intensive sectors, compared to mixed waste collection, incinerators and landfills. Based on a similar set of measures, Beasley & Georgeson (2014) have estimated an impact of between 630,000 and 870,000 new workers (direct and indirect, of which about 300,000 in the re-use preparation sector and marketing of furniture and textiles) and a reduction of CO2 emissions of 300 to 400 million tons, specifically due to recycling. 

If on the one hand the feasibility of an adequate collection and recycling system to achieve the objectives is not under question – in many European regions, from Germany to the Italian north-east, these targets are already met or even surpassed – the objectives appear more challenging with regards to a homogenous implementation in all the states of the Union, as well as the capacity of effective industrial recycling. 

For materials such as metals, glass and wood the achievement of the targets, albeit ambitious, only requires an improvement in the capacity of interception and selection. Currently the recycling rate of metal packaging in the EU area amounts to 72.5% (with seven countries already meeting the objective set by the directive for 2025) and there is a demand for metal waste which is far superior to the quantity of actual packaging. 

Also for glass, the gap between the current level of recycling (72.8%) of packaging and the objectives seems easy to close, despite the increase in the recovery of other fractions of glass – for example from computer monitors – as the glass and ceramic industries have wide margins of increment in recycling rates. 

The increasing demand for wood packaging, whose recycling rate currently stands at 37.9% (although these are not entirely reliable data, as states do not uniformly distinguish between re-use and recycle) appears more disrupting. A growth in the recycling rate, however, appears compatible with the capacity of organization of collection and with the demand from both the wood and composting industries, the main areas of recycling. However, it will conflict with the demand for energy uses, which is also financially supported and stimulated as for any other renewable resources.

The two really critical areas for the achievement of the objectives, but where there is also great innovation, are paper and plastic. 

As for paper, a simultaneous increase in the rate of collection of packaging and graphic paper would require a significant increase in the recycling rate of the European industry (roughly over 60 million tons). For many states, this would be totally unsustainable, however it would be sustainable at European level with the increase in the recycling rate in part of the continental industry (Spain uses 80% more than what it produces, France 62% and Italy 55%), and above all of the Scandinavian one (which today produces 25% of European paper, but recycles less than 10%), combined with exports or the use of the product for second generation biofuels. 

As for plastic, the challenge is even harder, as today the European average recycling rate amounts to a mere 35%, alongside a quota of “exports for recycling” which is over 25% of what is recycled inside the Union. The required added capacity for recycling would amount to 3.7 million tons, double the growth of recycled quantities in the last ten years. A further increment in the capacity of plastic recycling will require an intervention upstream in the supply chain, with reusable plastic packaging that could be more easily recycled, as well as an improvement in the capacity of selecting homogenous or compatible polymers, and innovation in other sectors where plastic is used, even outside the industry of plastic material, in particular that of heterogeneous plastic and residues of selection. The supply chains of plastic lumber, wood-plastic composites, products for building industry, are all supply chains that could potentially be expanded and that are environmentally convenient compared to any other energy alternative. In this sector a change of scenario could also come from other innovations, such as the use of compostable plastic for that packaging that is in close contact with fresh food. 

 

Image above: © Baloncici / Shutterstock