SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission's environment directorate is pushing hard for a binding target to increase Europe’s resource efficiency 30% by 2030 as part of a waste review due to be published in May, EurActiv has learned.

The move, which would be accompanied by a policy paper about the circular economy, will be stoutly opposed by other Commission directorates and states such as the UK concerned about short-term costs to industry.

But the battle lines may be less clearly drawn than in the fracas over 2030 climate targets, due to the earlier economic gains that resource efficiency may bring.

“It is crazy that about 80% of what we produce is used once and then thrown away,” Joe Hennon, a spokesman for the environment commissioner, Janez Potočnik, told EurActiv. “If businesses use less resources and develop products that use less energy, water and raw materials, it is in their own interests as the prices for all those will only be rising in the years ahead.”

Hennon declined to comment on the headline 30% figure but said that the mandatory nature of any targets “will of course be discussed in the Commission, as well as in Parliament and Council.”

The EU currently has an aspirational goal to virtually eliminate landfilling by 2020, and binding objectives of recycling at least 50% of all household waste by 2020, and collecting 45% of all batteries by 2016.   

“There are already mandatory targets for waste and we would intend to introduce new ones based on the need for them,” Hennon said. “Expect something on marine litter and construction and demolition waste, food waste, hazardous waste, plastic waste and possibly recycling phosphorous.”

Other flagged measures could include green public procurement and a harmonisation of methodology used by EU states to calculate the percentage of waste they recycle and compost.

“The bottom line is that we need to do something about the way we produce goods and how we deal with waste,” Hennon said.

Waste overflow

A third of the EU’s annual three billion tonnes of waste is currently dumped in landfill sites, which can contaminate groundwater and aquifers and release large quantities of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, in decomposition. Another quarter of Europe’s waste is incinerated, in a process that environmentalists say can produce significant amounts of dioxins and furans that can be hazardous to public health.

The share of municipal waste composted or recycled has increased massively – from 18% in 1995 to 42% in 2012 - according to Eurostat figures. But these numbers mask huge regional variations between states in the continent’s North and West, and in its South and East. 

While Germany’s waste recycling and composting rate was an impressive 65%, Romania’s was just 1%. And where Austria reached 62% in the table, Serbia which is not an EU member, landfilled 100% of its trash.

French authorities though have complained that Eurostat’s reporting methodology is not harmonised across the continent. As a result, Germany can boast a ‘zero landfill’ record, while still landfilling incineration ashes and residual waste from recycling processes, they say.

The figures can also hide other anomalies. Even in countries such as the UK, which recycled or composted 46% of its waste, rubbish on beaches reached a two-decade high last year with 2,390 items of trash for every kilometer surveyed by the Marine Conservation Society. 

Industry: No waste ‘taxation’ without representation

The way municipalities charge for waste treatment is also attracting increased scrutiny.

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). However, industry voices are demanding a say in how those schemes are managed, and financed, if they are going to pay for them. Average fees charged to producers ranged from €14 to €200 per ton for the same mix of packaging streams according to a study carried out for the Commission ahead of the May waste review.

Speaking at a EurActiv conference in Brussels on 18 March, Coca-Cola’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Hans van Bochove, raised the famous slogan of the American revolution: “No taxation without representation”.

“If it is decided that we as an industry are financially responsible for all of this, then obliged industry has to be at the helm when it comes to deciding how [it is regulated],” he said. “If I am responsible for paying for this, you can rely on me to drive costs down while trying to achieve maximum effectiveness.”

Coca-Cola is one of the world’s largest users of recyclable Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) bottles and has cut its carbon footprint through the use of recycled aluminium cans, as well as developing recovery initiatives, such as “bring” systems. It also has an ambitious internal recovery target of eliminating 100% of waste in its production facilities, by intensified recycling. Such schemes are “critical from our reputational perspective,” van Bochove said.

“We can do more and we would want to do more,” said Martin Reynolds, the Chairman of Europen, an industry body working to address the environmental challenges of the packaging supply chain. “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.”

Environmentalists, for their part, fear that this could lead to the adoption of a lowest common denominator position. “I was worried by [van Bochove’s] impression that because they are paying, they should be given full control or power on how we should handle our waste,” said Stephane Arditi, the senior waste policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “It is a bit dangerous as waste is also a matter of public service, health and environment policy that cannot be delegated to private companies and businesses.”

Cherry-picking

Interestingly, a degree of consensus has emerged between NGOs and multinationals over principles such as the earmarking of municipal fee collections for recycling. The EEB wants to see around 20% of total waste management costs covered by local authorities.

The NGO community is also increasingly supportive of certified takeback schemes to ensure that private sector initiatives for recyclable products are not damaged by ‘cowboy collectors’ who cherry pick products with the highest short-term resale value, and then withdraw from the market when the commodity price drops. 

Van Bochove said: “When you set higher targets for us all to achieve, to protect obliged industry from being cherry picked on, it is critically important that EPR (extended producer responsibility) schemes be a transparent way of driving higher collection and recycling of packaging, and not a tool to make industry the paymaster of a range of diverse interests.”

“That’s a concern that we can share,” Arditi said. “We want to create incentives for reducing waste generation and moving towards a circular economy where our waste is reused as secondary raw materials as much as possible.”

“If you steal part of the valuable material from obliged industry, you don’t provide the right incentive for them to recover their investment and go for better designs,” he added.

The EEB will soon publish its own paper for new resource efficiency and waste targets, including a renewed call for the ‘zero landfill’ concept to be extended to incineration disposal, within the context of a fully circular economy.

As EU officials attempt to close the door on one battle over 2030 climate targets, another one appears to be in the process of opening.