Blue, yellow or white? Recycling varies widely in the EU

The European Commission is considering a harmonised colour code for bin bags as part of an upcoming package of green legislation due in June 2021. [Nazri Yaakub / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Plastic waste management.

Deposit return and extended producer responsibility schemes are everywhere in the EU but have very different rules. Does this present a barrier to meeting the EU’s recycling objectives?

In Brussels, capital of the European Union, EU officials must remember to put their plastic waste in a blue bag, their paper waste in a yellow bag, and their residual waste in a white bag.

But if that official is German, they must remember to do precisely the opposite when they’re in their home capital of Berlin – where yellow is for plastic and blue is for paper.

The reason is that though the EU has requirements that municipalities and product producers share responsibility for recycling collection across the union, how they design those systems is up to national and regional authorities. But this is a situation the European Commission is looking to change.

“At the moment there are different bags and different rules for collecting the different streams of waste,” Mattia Pellegrini, a senior official at the European Commission’s environment directorate, told a EURACTIV event in Brussels in September. As a result, “many things that are recyclable end up in the residual bin” because people often get confused and end up throwing litter in the wrong bag.

“By having this harmonised colour-coding, this would also facilitate pan-European campaigns” aimed at informing consumers, Pellegrini said, adding this may appear in the planned revision of the EU’s packaging waste directive, expected to be proposed by June of next year.

EU plans harmonised colour code for bin bags

The colour of garbage bags could soon be harmonised across the 27 EU member states under European Commission plans to improve waste collection and boost recycling.

However Joachim Quoden, managing director of EXPRA, an alliance of European extended producer responsibility schemes, says the colour of the bags is the wrong focus.

“My question is whether that would solve the real problem, or is that just addressing the needs of someone who moves from Finland to Greece,” he says. “In Germany for example we’ve invested 30 years and billions of euros to convince people to put their plastic in the yellow bag, and in Belgium for 28 years they’ve been told to put it in the blue bag.

“You would have to convince either the Germans or the Belgians to change.”

Rather than changing the practices of those countries where recycling is developed, he says, efforts should be made for those countries where it’s not.

“Some EU countries don’t even have a functioning waste management system for residual waste, they are the challenge. For them it doesn’t make any difference whether the bin is blue or yellow or purple, as long as they actually have a bin where they can separate their waste.”

The more important element of the revision, he says, will be whether the obligations of producers are strengthened. Because it isn’t just the bag colours that differs – it’s the entire structure of who pays for and organises recycling.

The rules governing waste management will have to be clarified if the EU is to meet the 90% separate collection target for plastic beverage bottles by 2029 target set in the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive.

Producer responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a concept enshrined in EU law but it is only mandatory at the moment for electronic waste. By 2024, however, it will be extended to all packaging.

24 of the 27 EU member states already have EPR in place for packaging – all except Hungary, Croatia and Denmark who fund collection through taxation instead.

“Extended producer responsibility is the idea to make those who are putting a product or packaging on the market responsible for its end of life,” explains Quoden. “This is partly a financial obligation, and very often it’s an operational obligation as well. And it forces producers to think of the end of life while designing their product, because it makes after life treatment cheaper.”

But different EU countries have chosen to implement very different EPR systems. While countries in Northern Europe have tended to make producers responsible for collection, countries in Southern Europe have tended to keep operations entirely in the hands of municipalities and have producers pay them a fee. And that fee can vary enormously.

“Up till now we’ve had countries where industry only needs to contribute a tiny part, and others where industry is paying the full costs,” says Quoden. “On that, I expect to see more harmonisation. But on the operations, that will continue to strongly depend on the power and engagement of local authorities.”

One possible change in the directive that would further incentivise producers to make their products easier to recycle is to have their EPR contributions vary based on their product design. Right now, everyone pay the same regardless of how hard their products are to recycle.

“At the moment the solidarity between all the companies using the same packaging is very strong, but the next step that is coming now is the so-called eco-modulation of fees, where the individual design of the company is more in the focus,” says Quoden. “In the future you will have a fee per subcategory: a special fee for bottles, for film, and so on. It will be much more differentiated than today. And some member states may differentiate between the best performers and the worst.”

He adds that he expects to see a target that says from 2030 companies can only out packaging on the market that is truly recyclable. “A real test is whether we’re able to collect and sort the packaging, and if there’s a market for the sorted material.”

Brussels plans new EU packaging rules to cut waste

The European Commission has started gathering views from EU member states, the packaging industry and online retailers ahead of a comprehensive review of EU rules on packaging waste, part of efforts to boost reuse and recycling rates by 2030.

Deposit return systems

Another possible tool to meet the EU’s recycling targets is deposit return schemes (DRS). Several EU countries have such schemes in place, where consumers are incentivised to recycle by paying a deposit when they buy a product and receiving it back when they drop it off at a collection point.

Germany, for instance, has a €0.25 deposit for plastic bottles which consumers receive back when they put the bottles into a recycling machine, which can be found at any grocery store.

It’s a different approach than EPR, and has the benefit of yielding high return rates in a separate ‘clean’ stream for PET beverage bottles, thereby guaranteeing a closed loop and enabling a higher use of recycled content. However, there are also disadvantages to this system, such as a perceived rise in the cost of products to consumers – even if they do get the money back.

There are also concerns that such systems don’t encourage reuse. “For us the big question now is whether deposit schemes will be designed and implemented in the waste hierarchy, focusing primarily on prevention and reuse alongside refillable quotas for instance, rather than only on recycling and separate collection,” said Larissa Copello de Souza from the campaign group Zero Waste Europe who spoke at a EURACTIV event in September.

Still, deposit schemes are much faster and easier to set up than EPR schemes, because they don’t require infrastructure. The system relies on the citizens to bring back the bottles themselves. This could make them an attractive option for those countries which will struggle to meet the EU recycling targets.

“We have a very big difference in the collection performance of plastic bottles from one country to another,” said Philippe Diercxsens, environment manager at Danone Waters. “And if a country in 2025 hasn’t reached 77% collection, then that country clearly needs to ask themselves the question to very quickly introduce a deposit refund scheme to have the chance to reach that 90% objective in 2029,” he said at the EURACTIV event.

Whether it’s through EPR or DRS, plenty of EU member states have a lot of catching up to do if they’re going to meet the 2029 target on plastic bottles, along with the union’s other recycling targets. Further guidance from the Commission will be welcome, whether or not it decides to wade into the thorny issue of which colour should be used for recycling collection.

Pressure mounts on EU member states to meet plastic recycling goals

Pressure is increasing on member states to recycle 77% of plastic bottles by 2025 and reduce waste.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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