Resource efficiency: different sectors need different maps?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The European Commission should consider sectoral approaches to its resource-efficiency roadmap as different waste streams like paper or metal follow different supply pathways, argues Jori Ringman-Beck, from the European Recovered Paper Council (ERPC).

Jori Ringman-Beck is ERPC secretary and Environment, Recycling and Product Director at the Confederation of European Paper industries (CEPI). He contributed this commentary in exclusivity for EURACTIV.

“Waste is not just a problem which needs regulation to ensure least harmful disposal. It is also a resource. Recognition of this was one of the most important changes in the EU waste law set in the Thematic Strategy on waste in 2006 and the new Waste Directive 2008/98/EC. Many member states have not managed to transpose the directive into legislation, even though the deadline was nearly a year ago.

Despite this, the Commission is already drawing a roadmap to becoming the most resource-efficient economy in the world.

Businesses tend to support of the roadmap objective – after all, using resources efficiently is at the core of any profitable operation. But what use is a roadmap if you cannot place yourself on it? The situations in various countries and sectors regarding resource needs and opportunities in Europe vary so widely that even when we use the same words we can be talking about different things.

The recycling society was to come to fruition with the EU’s target of 50 percent recycling for municipal waste by 2020. This is a level which the European paper industry had already reached in 2000. Since then the EU paper recycling rate has risen to 68.9 percent (2010) and the industry is committed to getting higher.

It is all very well for the paper industry to trumpet its achievement, but what is the lesson for other sectors?

The critical achievement for the European paper industry has been the voluntary involvement of nearly the whole value chain in enhancing environmental performance, recycling and recyclability. Measurable, science-based assessments of design for recyclability have been developed and agreed with all participants in the value chain. It is an approach founded on waste hierarchy, producer responsibility and resource efficiency.

For the European paper industry to raise the bar further, certain conditions must prevail.

First, waste collection: the organic fibres which paper contains are vulnerable to contamination, particularly if paper is not collected separately from other waste materials. It is therefore essential that the obligation to collect paper and some other materials separately by 2015 in all member states is observed.

Likewise, the supply of fibre is threatened by its energy-generation potential, driven particularly by green energy subsidies. In our view, combustion should be the final destination for waste fibre, once all possibilities for creating value through paper products are exhausted.

An additional threat to paper recyclers in Europe is the growing exports of recyclable material to Asia. Increased collection rates and application of the proximity principle are needed to match any rise in exports.

These criteria might be paper-specific, but they matter at a wider level because paper’s recycling figures make such an important contribution towards achieving those 2020 goals overall.

However, these conditions, essential as they are for paper, may not be important for other sectors. So they should not be forced on other industries, but nor should they be diluted for the paper industry.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Commission should consider writing sectoral pathways to resource efficiency. After all, this is a conclusion similar to the one reached in the roadmap to the low carbon economy. Square pegs for square holes, round pegs….”