“Our waste is our responsibility. Letting waste pollute the environment, end up in illegal dumpsites or in our oceans is a real loss of resources, which are precious for the EU’s transition to a circular economy.” This is how Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, commented on the revision of the regulations for the waste export proposed by the European Commission on November 17th.
The revision, if approved, will involve a crackdown on shipments of waste materials to non-OECD countries, with the dual objective of putting a stop to the so-called "waste colonialism" (i.e., exports to countries not equipped to handle it) and combating illegal trafficking, which is estimated to affect around 30% of exports outside the EU. At the same time, the Commission proposes a simplification of shipping rules within the EU, so as to facilitate the reuse of materials that are actually valuable resources for the European economy in view of a circular economy.
A market to regulate
It's no secret that the global waste market has been growing steadily for years. The latest data from 2018 portray an import/export volume of 182 million tons, worth over 80 billion euros. The fundamental problem is that this is a poorly regulated and controlled market, with a worrisome tendency for illegal trafficking and in general prone to taking advantage of "dark areas" to unload the burden of waste to be disposed of on countries that are poorly equipped to manage it, both from a legislative and an infrastructure point of view. This is what various environmental associations have christened "waste colonialism", a phenomenon that has been worsening in recent years, particularly since China banned the import of low-quality waste materials within its borders in 2018.
Europe alone exports 33 million tons of waste every year, an amount that has grown by 75% since 2004. More than 13 million tons end up in Turkey (or rather, they used to, since Turkey has decided to place restrictions on imports as well) and another 2.9 million in India, followed by some non-EU countries including Indonesia and Pakistan, clearly not in a position to manage the flow of waste that then go on to become real ecological bombs.
The European Commission has calculated that of all these exports, between 15% and 30% could be illegal, for a value of 9.5 billion euros per year. In short, there is an urgent need to remind those who produce waste of their responsibilities.
What does the revised waste shipment regulation say?
With the proposed revisions, the European Commission intends to bring order to the Wild West of the waste market and at the same time do a favor to the EU circular economy. European industry currently uses only 12% of recycled materials in the production chain, while tons of valuable resources are shipped abroad, where they will most likely be burned or buried in landfills.
First of all, reads the summary of the proposal, “exports of waste to non-OECD countries will be limited and authorized only if the third countries are willing to receive certain wastes and are able to manage them in a sustainable manner”. Control systems will, of course, have to be put in place: “all EU companies exporting waste out of the EU will have to ensure that the receiving facilities undergo an independent audit showing that they manage their waste in an environmentally sound manner”.
The Commission also intends to strengthen action against illicit trafficking: “To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the law enforcement regime, an EU group to guarantee the legality of waste shipments will be set up, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) will be given the power to assist transnational investigations conducted by Member States and stricter rules on administrative sanctions will be introduced”.
While tightening the system to better control what goes out, it will also be necessary to simplify internal circulation. The Commission therefore proposes to streamline the procedures in place to transport waste materials within EU countries (for example through the exchange of digital documents), so as to facilitate their reuse and recycling in view of the circular economy. Increasing the rate of recycling within European borders will not only help reduce environmental impacts and achieve decarbonization targets, but will also help the European Union become more independent in the supply of raw materials, both critical and non-critical.
Among industry insiders, however, there are those who admit concern over the effects of this announced crackdown. The European Recycling Industries Confederation (EuRIC), for example, warns that, given the low rate of use of recycled materials by the European industry, the new rules risk creating a stalemate for waste: “we urgently need binding criteria that force the industry to use recycled materials in production processes”. It is time, in short, to speed up circularity and stop relegating the waste problem to third countries.
ph Maria Gullestrup, Pixabay