EU predicts ‘waste tsunami’ if world fails to cut down trash

  
Food waste. Ulrich Mueller/Shutterstock

SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission is preparing new policy proposals to reduce waste and reach greater recycling rates, in order to move towards a zero-refuse economy.

“The way in which our society has produced and consumed so far is simply not sustainable any longer,” said Karl Falkenberg, who heads the European Commission’s environment directorate.

Speaking at a EurActiv event last Tuesday (18 March), the Commission director-general warned that with a global population set to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, the world had no choice but to dramatically cut down on waste or face a severe environmental backlash.

“We are going to be hit by a tsunami of waste if all of those additional people coming to this planet – essentially in the developing world – start consuming like we do in Europe,” he warned.

“But it requires a fairly fundamental change in our attitude. We need to ensure that waste is not a dirty marginal activity of our economies but that we put waste at the centre of a circular economy.”

Separate targets for different waste ‘streams’

The EurActiv event focused on packaging waste, one of the five streams identified under EU waste rules, which are currently being revised. Giving the audience a foretaste of things to come, Falkenberg said his services were working to ensure that the best practices of leading member states were being shared by all.

“We think that there is a role for a European regulator to set targets,” Falkenberg said. “We are not convinced unfortunately that, on their own, industry, consumers, municipalities, or nations are sufficiently fast-moving in the direction where we need to move if we want to be sustainable.”

“So we think we need to set targets for those different [waste] streams,” he said.

The proposed revision may introduce an overall recycling objective of up to 70% and a landfill ban, according to industry sources in Brussels.

But perhaps the Commission’s biggest challenge will be getting European countries to streamline their national waste collection and recycling schemes.

The EU's 2008 Waste Framework Directive calls for recycling of at least 50% of household waste by 2020. But the legislation, which calls for a European “recycling society”, has apparently failed to reach all corners of the Union.

Bulgaria is the EU’s most wasteful country, dumping all of its municipal trash, according to a report by Friends of the Earth Europe, published last year. Germany was the greenest of the EU 27, dumping none of its waste and recycling 45%.

Huge price differences

Addressing those disparities will not be easy. The EU’s packaging directive requires producers to contribute to local waste collection and treatment schemes, a concept referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). But the way those schemes have been implemented varies enormously across the European Union.

Olivier De Clercq, an official working for Falkenberg’s environment directorate, underlined lack of data and transparency about how municipalities finance the multitude of waste collection and treatment schemes in place across the 28-member bloc.

“The variety is not only in terms of performance, it is also the fees that are paid by the producers,” De Clercq said. An independent study carried out for the Commission ahead of the May waste review, showed that the average fees charged to producers ranged from €14 to €200 per ton for the same mix of packaging streams.

“One of the conclusions is that the most costly systems are not necessarily the most effective,” De Clercq said. “You can have an efficient system with a low cost.”

The price difference may be explained by the extent of services covered by the various schemes, which may include only household waste or all types of waste. However, the overall conclusion is not reassuring. “There is a huge challenge in terms of transparency regarding EPR,” De Clercq said, pointing to “huge differences in terms of access to data” between countries.

Stéphane Arditi, an environmental campaigner at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), is not only worried about price differentials. “When I see this broad range of fees for the same service, I am also concerned about the quality of the service,” he told the audience at the event.

Indeed, the quality of the service may vary widely. Some facilities recycle only 50% of waste but others reach 95% because they sort out and pre-treat waste upstream, which is more costly. “Can we call this the same service? I’m not sure. So I think we need to set some basic standards that are accepted by all so that we are sure that we are talking about the same quality of service,” Arditi said.

Call for greater harmonisation

For the obliged industry paying for the schemes, greater harmonisation will eventually be needed if higher recycling rates are to be reached.

“We need to understand how these costs work,” said Martin Reynolds, the Chairman of Europen, an industry body working to address the environmental challenges of the packaging supply chain.

Reynolds accepts that “there is a cost that industry has to bear” for waste collection and treatment, but called for greater transparency and inclusiveness in how local waste treatment schemes are managed.

“We can do more and we would want to do more,” he said. “But in doing that, I think that gives us an entitlement to have some control over both the efficient running and the cost management of those schemes so that we can reach whatever the target is going to be.”

“Whatever the targets, there are some things that we need to do in terms of understanding and putting in place clear structures for getting things done,” Reynolds said.

Arditi, for his part, doubts that the Commission will be bold enough to mandate a greater harmonisation of national waste legislation. “At the moment what is not clear to me is whether the Commission will have the courage to […] set minimum requirements on member states in terms of how we orchestrate EPR, what is the shared definition.”

“If the Commission produces only a guidance document with recommendations, then I think it is going to be very weak document. So what I’m missing at the moment is the intention of the Commission.”

Seeking to address those concerns, Olivier De Clercq said the Commission was resolute in its intentions. “In terms of economic instruments, we clearly want to provide more guidance for the member states. We would like to increase the cost-effectiveness but also the enforcement, the transparency, and the monitoring to ensure that the market is functioning well,” he said.

Timeline: 
  • May 2014: European Commission expected to publish communication on the circular economy as part of waste review
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