This article is part of our special report Closing loops for a circular economy.
The European Commission is looking at targets for recycled plastics into new products as a way to boost demand for secondary raw materials, according to a senior EU official involved in drafting upcoming laws on recycling.
Sarah Nelen is head of unit for waste management and secondary materials at the European Commission’s environment directorate (DG Environment). She will be among the speakers at an event, “Closing Loops – Recipe for a Truly Circular Economy”, organised on 6 March by the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC).
Nelen spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon.
- By 2025, Brussels wants 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics to find their way back into new products.
- One option is to set targets for recycled materials next time the EU updates directives on cars or packaging.
- To that effect, the EU executive is drafting an update of the packaging waste directive, which will come out under the next Commission.
- Eco-design measures to improve recyclability of plastics could also include limiting the range of options for manufacturing new products, like PET bottles.
A trialogue agreement was reached in December on the circular economy package: what are the main strengths and weaknesses of this agreement? Was the Commission proposal changed substantially?
At the European Commission, we are happy with the agreement reached. We think it’s close to what we put on the table in December 2015. When adopted, this package will actually include the world’s most ambitious targets on recycling and landfilling. So we feel very proud.
Some, including in the packaging industry, were calling for a zero landfilling target…
Yes, but this was never part of the Commission’s proposal. We believe there is still a place for landfilling to dispose of waste that really cannot be recovered, such as certain hazardous waste or bottom ashes from incineration.
But the direction is very clear: the future lies in a circular economy where there is only very limited place for landfilling.
Were there any points where you felt the agreement was not as strong as the Commission would have liked?
There is no binding target on food waste, like the Parliament wanted. But that is for a good reason because we feel there is still work needed on data collection and harmonised methodologies. We want to do things properly so there will be scope in the future for more. But this is how far we could get at this stage.
In the past, the weakness has been a lack of clear definitions. Now, there is much more clarity: a harmonised definition of municipal waste and harmonised calculation methods to measure recycling.
This is very different from the current situation which allows for four different ways of defining household waste and three different ways of calculating recycling. There was a pick-and-choose way of working for the member states, which will now come to an end.
For instance, in the past, member states could count input into a sorting plant as part of their recycling targets. But that does not necessarily mean recycling afterwards. Now, the rule is that you count only what you recycle – after collection and sorting – and after deducting the losses.
The Chinese import ban on waste is already creating rising stockpiles of paper and plastics in Europe. But there is not enough demand for recycled materials in Europe to absorb this. So what’s going to happen? Will all these materials end up in the incinerator as a result?
In the Commission’s view – and also for many recyclers – the Chinese waste import ban in the longer run is an opportunity for Europe. It is fully in line with keeping resources in Europe and strengthening the competitiveness of recyclers who play by the rules and have invested in pollution control and other technologies to make the recyclables clean.
So this can help high-quality recycling and is fully in line with the waste package’s high recycling targets. Member states and operators will have to look at how they can establish and improve separate collection and extended producer responsibility systems to foster high-quality recycling in Europe. And when the quality of the recyclates is better, it will also improve demand.
Now, we recognise that in the short term it is challenging indeed. But we are convinced that at the same time it is an incentive to improve the design of plastics, improve separate collection and sorting and make investments in additional recycling facilities.
But in the short term, it will probably mean more incineration. Because rising stockpiles of paper and plastics can also be a source of hazard…
This is a risk in the short term indeed. Stock problems have to be solved. But we are convinced that the market will adapt and look for economic opportunities. If you want to keep resources in the economy, then incineration is not the best value for money, even if it’s waste-to-energy.
The Commission is currently looking at a range of incentives to increase demand for recycled materials. Taxation is a national competence, so what can the EU do? Are soft measures enough?
We’re working on different fronts. A lot of the plastic goes into packaging so we will work on the revision of the packaging and packaging waste directive. One of the flagship elements of the plastics strategy is that by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the market can be reused or recycled in a cost-effective way.
Cost-effectiveness is important. In theory, every material is recyclable if you put enough research and innovation into it. But we want to do it in a way that is economically viable. That means looking at the design of products before they are placed on the market and effectively recycling them afterwards. And major brands like Coca-Cola have already said they were prepared to do so and have made announcements in that direction. So as policymakers, we are stimulating this process.
We’ve also called on industry to make voluntary pledges to use recycled plastics more than in the past. By 2025, we want 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics finding their way back into products. We will evaluate this and if voluntary commitments aren’t sufficient, we might consider other steps, including regulatory action.
Virgin materials – especially plastics – are often cheaper than recycled materials. So what options is the Commission looking into in order to level the playing field?
One way is to encourage the uptake of recycled material in order to stimulate demand. The uptake of recycled plastics in parts of the automotive sector is already happening and it is relatively easy. So this is something we might look into when we review EU legislation on end-of-life vehicles, including possible targets on the uptake of recycled materials. Same for the construction sector, we will also look at it. And in the packaging and packaging waste directive, we might also look at the uptake of recycled content as part of the review of the so-called essential requirements.
So that means targets for the uptake of recycled materials?
Yes, this is an option for certain products which are obvious candidates – so perhaps not food packaging for example.
Still on plastics, Commissioner Katainen said markets for secondary raw materials will only pick up if EU-wide regulations are put in place setting standards for plastic packages. What’s the timeframe for putting those standards in place?
We are working with the European standardisation committee on the development of quality standards for plastic waste and recycled plastics. And the timeline is 2018. A lot of it is a question of trust in this sector and the quality of the recycled materials. And quality is linked with better collection and sorting of waste, which are the basics of modern waste management.
For instance, the issue of contamination of waste will be less if there is separate collection of biowaste. So the quality will improve when separate collection becomes binding. And the trust in the quality of the recycled material will improve as a result. The work we do on the interface between chemicals legislation and waste will also improve trust in recycled materials.
End-of-waste criteria do exist for some categories of materials. Isn’t that sufficient?
It’s impossible to do end-of-waste criteria at a European level for every single product. Because it’s huge. The variety of articles is so big that it’s impossible to do it for all.
We have done it in sectors where there was clear demand for them so we have established some. But others failed, for example on paper. And this doesn’t prevent paper recyclates from being used across Europe. So the paper example shows it can work, even without end-of-waste criteria at European level.
We will continue considering to develop end-of-waste criteria for certain materials when there is clear demand for them – and we keep a close eye on what is being done nationally. We will help this process by putting up an online repository for all end-of-waste criteria adopted across the EU. This information exchanges should lead to more harmonisation as well.
By 2030, all plastics should be recyclable. What steps are being envisaged to achieve this?
This will be done via a legislative proposal. And the work is starting now: as part of the plastics strategy, we’ve had workshops with industry and we saw there was a growing consensus to work together towards new legislation.
It’s now up to us to prepare an impact assessment before coming up with a legislative proposal. We know this is coming very soon after the agreement on the waste package about to be adopted but we believe it’s needed so we will do it.
Will the proposal be tabled under this Commission?
No. After May of this year, there won’t be new legislative proposals anymore. So it will probably be one of the first deliverables of the new Commission. The proposal on single-use plastics is probably the last one on the circular economy that will come out under this Commission.
What will be the main objective of this new piece of legislation?
One of the challenges will be to define what is recyclable. As I said before, everything is recyclable in theory. But this is not the kind of recyclability we’re after. We want recyclability that guarantees high-quality recycling and economic viability.
For example, a PET bottle is in theory perfectly recyclable. But most of the volume on the market will come from white transparent bottles or blue ones. And a PET bottle that is red has a chemical additive that makes it virtually impossible to recycle with other bottles. Even if you can do it with another process, the volumes are lacking to make it economically worthwhile.
So we have to look at all these issues and come to a consensus on what the variety of products on the market means in terms of economic viability.
Could that include restricting the options available to manufacturers in order to limit the variety of plastic bottles available on the market?
It could include that, yes. Although I cannot prejudge the outcome because the process is only starting. There are so many different plastics on the market – this is something the Ellen McArthur Foundation has illustrated really well. And we need to take a look at that.
But in the end, could that mean less choice and more standardised products so that they can be more easily recycled?
That could be it, yes. We will look into that among a range of other options.
Can a similar approach be envisaged for e-waste, like smartphones?
Here, the problem is more with collection, which has an impact on the recycling of batteries for example. We first need proper collection in order to get the materials back. And this is a specific challenge for those sectors. People sort their paper separately but electric and electronic waste is still a challenge.
Batteries are a very interesting area of work. There will be a huge need for the next generation of cars running on batteries so this is really strategic. And the Commission’s mobility package in May will address the recyclability of batteries.
This also raises the issue of chemicals, which is another challenge for recycling.
As part of the circular economy package, we have reflected a lot on the linkages between the different pieces of legislation which in the past were developed a little bit in silos. And now we realise that the approaches between waste and chemicals were not entirely consistent and that there could be conflicts.
But our vision for the future is very clear: all goods should be designed, manufactured and recycled with a minimum use of substances of concern thus enabling a maximum degree of reuse and high-quality recycling of materials. And when it comes to chemicals, a key issue is the flow of information and transparency along the supply chain – from the original manufacturer to the recycler.
That is something the European Parliament wanted to address in the waste package – making sure that information on substances of very high concern in products is available transparently all the way down the value chain including to recyclers. Such data – already required under REACH – will in the future also be made available to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), so that this information will also serve waste managers. So there are first steps being taken to link up the different streams.
And we will come up soon with a guidance document on waste classification to help member states and stakeholders classify hazardous waste.
Is there a trade-off here between the quality of recycling and the volume?
Yes, indeed. That is, for instance, the case with legacy substances – products from the past that still contain hazardous substances that are not allowed anymore. But of course, that is a legacy of the past where you have to make a trade-off sometimes. As the ‘design for recyclability’ improves, trade-offs will diminish.
How can you draw the line between the two?
This is exactly the kind of work that we’re doing – trying to see where the line is and what it means in practice.
What about specific cases like food contact materials? Safety is paramount in this area and packaging manufacturers currently don’t use recycled materials at all for safety reasons.
On food contact materials, the standards are much stricter than anywhere else. So it’s very clear that it’s not something we will compromise on.
At the same time, we are reconsidering the rules as part of the plastic strategy action plan. But of course, health issues prevail in the area of food safety. After all, a plastic food wrap is quite different from a car bumper!