Driven in part by volatile prices of oil, a key ingredient in the production of raw plastic, businesses are looking to the European Commission to call for an end to landfill disposal of drinks bottles and packaging by 2020 when it presents legislation in the coming months.
Many EU countries are already failing in their commitments under the 2008 Waste Framework Directive to recycle half their rubbish by 2020. EU figures show that the majority of EU nations continue to dump most of their waste, with plastic recycling rates varying from 15% to 30% across much of the Union.
Janez Potočnik, the EU’s environment commissioner, in March presented a package of recommendations in a Green Paper on Plastic Waste ahead of the review in 2014 of the EU’s Landfill Directive.
The proposal, calling for a more ambitious reduction in the amount of plastics being dumped, was widely welcomed by the plastics industry and environmental groups. But there are concerns that national governments will block the growing consensus in Brussels that there should be a firm deadline to end the landfilling of plastic beverage bottles and packaging.
“What we would very much welcome is that the European Commission looks into either a ban or phase-out of landfill of recyclable materials, not only plastics, but any other high-calorific-value material,” said Hanane Taidi, communications director for PlasticsEurope, which represents plastics producers. “That is what we are hoping to see within the revision of the Landfill Directive.”
A Schengen area of waste
The manufacturers’ association also supports economic incentives to promote recycling and investment in infrastructure, as well as creating what Taidi calls “a Schengen area of waste” to encourage the trans-border shipment of recyclables to existing or underused sorting facilities – a practice now banned in many areas.
Bulgaria, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece and Malta all recycle less than 20% of plastics, while the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden recycle between 30% and 40% of their plastics, industry figures show.
The combined growth in plastics use in the EU and low recycling rates in many countries have prompted numerous organisations, including marine advocates concerned plastic jetsam on the open seas, to press for remedies.
In June, the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based campaign group, urged the Commission to press for the taxation of plastics waste and an outright ban on landfill disposal of plastics. A bottle recycling fee, used by Germany and a few other countries, is considered another option.
The plastics industry, while more reserved about taxation and deposits, says those could be used as targeted options to help finance alternatives to outright dumping. But the industry sees a correlation between the landfill bans and higher recycling as the best way to find new uses for old packaging and bottling.
Landfill bans seen spurring recycling efforts
Countries with higher recycling rates – such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Sweden – have also restricted or banned landfilling, according to a EurActiv analysis of data from the EU’s European Environment Agency.
Adrian Whyle, resource efficiency manager at PlasticsEurope, concurs that there is a correlation. “They have the landfill ban,” he said, pointing to a list of countries that are on the higher end of plastics recycling rates. “And we looked at the same figures ourselves, and what are they doing that others aren’t? It’s the landfill ban.”
Concern about waste comes as demand is surging. Plastics production since the turn of the century equalled production during the previous 100 years, according to European Commission figures. Plastics production in Europe accounted for about one-quarter of the global annual output of 1.5 million tonnes between 1950 and 2008. Demand is expected to triple by 2050.
While environmental groups have also called for zero-waste rules for EU nations and want to see public enticements for developing recycling industries, they have stopped short of backing plastics manufacturers’ bid to also encourage the incineration of more difficult to recycle plastics for energy.
The actor Jeremy Irons, whom the European Commission enlisted in March to raise awareness of waste, has produced a documentary film, ‘Trashed’, on plastic waste. Irons railed against waste and “unadulterated consumerism” in a presentation in Brussels on 7 March.
Overall, most European countries do poorly when it comes to recycling or reusing waste.
Figures released by the European statistical agency, Eurostat, in March show that 37% of the average 503 kg of waste each European generates ends up in landfills, 25% is recycled and 15% is composted. Some 23% is burned, typically for energy.
A recent study by Friends of the Earth Europe reported estimated that Europe recycles only 25% of its municipal waste, a far-cry from the EU's promise of a resource-efficient economy.
Some 60% of the European Union’s municipal waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions as well as an increasingly unsightly landscape, the environmental campaign group says.