This article is part of our special report Plastics Recycling.
SPECIAL REPORT / As the European Commission prepares to review the EU’s waste targets, the plastics industry, a symbol of the EU’s ‘throw-away society’, is one of the focal points in discussions on resource efficiency.
The policy review includes a look at key targets in EU waste legislation, a “fitness check” of the directives dealing with waste streams, including sewage sludge and packaging, among others, and an assessment of how best to tackle plastic waste.
The EU has aspirational goals to virtually eliminate landfilling, have reuse and recycling at their maximum feasible level, limiting energy recovery to recyclable waste, and decreasing the generation of waste, all by the year 2020.
Plastic waste is a key component. Last year, the Commission published the results of a public consultation, or ‘green paper’, on plastic waste, which Janez Poto?nik, the European commissioner for the environment, has called “drastic” due to its negative effects on the environment. Respondents to the green paper called for greater collection and recycling rates and a ban on landfilling the material.
The industry has a undertaken a voluntary commitment to eliminate landfilling by 2020, as well as promote recycling and energy recovery, when recycling is not possible.
“Eliminating or reducing waste is crucial to achieve a better resource efficiency society,” a spokesperson for PlasticsEurope, an industry association, told EurActiv in emailed comments. “We encourage focusing on reuse as a first priority, and then to sustainably recycle plastics whenever it is possible to do so. However, when sustainable recycling isn’t an option, we look at getting that last drop of oil out of this valuable resource. Thus, we look at energy recovery”.
This is in line with the EU’s waste hierarchy, which calls for prevention first, followed by reuse, recycling and energy recovery, with landfilling last.
According to Poto?nik’s spokesperson, the plastics industry, whose products have seen an “explosion” in their use since the 1950s, “understand their responsibility”.
“It sounds like they’re on the right track,” Joe Hennon told EurActiv.
To Stefan Arditi of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green pressure group, the industry will have to make sure that it does indeed reuse or recycle as much plastic as it can, and not fall back on incineration, the less environmentally-friendly option. The industry has mentioned 50% recycling and 50% incineration by 2020, as a way to end landfilling.
“The European Parliament has suggested between 70 and 80% recycling, depending on which MEP, for plastic for 2020. The plastic recycling industry (UPR) had made a study showing that it could be feasible,” said Arditi. “That means that everyone is asking for a higher recycling rate. That’s first why 50% recycling is not at all ambitious, when you consider for packaging and municipal waste.”
Some 37% of Europe’s waste ends up in landfills, while 25% is recycled, 15% composted and 23% burned, according to EU statistics from last year.
“Commissioner Potocnik’s first step to stop landfilling ASAP is therefore good, even if this means more incineration with energy recovery – always better than landfill because it replaces imported energy,” said Roel van’t Veer, of TEPPFA, the European plastic pipes and fittings association.
“Surely it is more beneficial to have more recycling. But this will require a lot of development in countries that are now mainly landfilling waste: there will have to come with collection systems for waste connected to sorting systems and proper recycling systems,” he said in emailed comments.
The construction sector, however, is viewed as a prime area for improvements in resource efficiency.
Hennon told EurActiv: “In order to be resource efficient, the three most resource heavy sectors are food, transport and construction. It’s the [construction] sector where it’s most possible to use recycled materials.”
Each European citizen generates an average of 503 kilos of municipal waste every year, but the level ranges from 300 kg in some member states and 700 in others.
According to a report by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, in 2011 some 37% of waste ended up in landfills, 25% was recycled and 15% was composted. Some 23% was burned, typically for energy recovery. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Denmark largely phased out landfilling, while Romania, Bulgaria and Malta dumped nearly all of their municipal waste.
The Commission estimates that Europeans use 15 tonnes of resources per capita each year.