EU circular economy’s REACH for the stars

Industry leaders warned that the recycling of scrap steel would grind to a halt in Europe if chemical laws are too stringent. [Shutterstock]

As the EU doubles down on its waste management efforts and sets its sights on tackling plastic waste, the idea of a circular economy and internal market for recycling is gathering momentum. But it will not be an easy task for lawmakers or industry to realise.

Since the beginning of 2018, the European Union has rubber-stamped updated waste management rules that govern recycling targets and landfill allowances, as well as publishing its long-awaited Plastics Strategy.

Both those packages of measures include a number of goals related to recycling and reuse, as well as setting out a roadmap to reduce single-use plastics and ban oxo-biodegradable plastics.

Industry leaders hope to take advantage of this formative period in policymaking to ensure that a profitable internal market is set up, especially since China decided to ban the import of plastics and other waste at the beginning of this year.

The Chinese waste import ban has been hailed as “an opportunity” by the European Commission and the race is now on to either increase recycling capacity in Europe or find alternative markets for the continent’s waste.

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Europe is not alone in having to decide what to do with its recyclable material either. At the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) Closing Loops event on 6 March, the Commission’s Sarah Nelen pointed out that global plastic production is expected to double over the next two decades, while Europe’s is currently on a steady level.

However recycling of plastics poses a real challenge. Only 30% of plastics are recycled, while 38% goes to landfill and the rest is burned. The main causes are the lack of eco-design obligations for plastic products at the manufacturing stage and the absence of market based instruments to pull demand for recycled plastics and reward the recycling value chain.

Naturally, it is this loop in particular that the EU and the recycling industry wants to close.

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REACH for the stars

But in order for more products to be recycled or reused, it is equally crucial to tackle problems at source, by ensuring that product design facilitates recycling and by substituting, whenever feasible, hazardous substances with suitable alternatives. 

This is where the EU’s chemicals legislation comes into play. The Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, also known as REACH, addresses toxic substances and their impact on human health and the environment.

REACH has in the past been accused of being an unnecessary burden on manufacturers, who also claim that it stifles innovation and dulls Europe’s competitive edge against other markets.

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At the Closing Loops event, EuRIC’s president, Michael Schuy, said it was crucial to get the right interface between EU legislation on waste, products and chemicals. Current chemical legislation is simply not suited to circular flows, he stressed.

Taking metal recycling as an example, the EuRIC president said metals are crucial to many high-tech applications such as batteries or catalysts. And their presence in steel scrap sometimes reaches levels that are close to the detection limits of laboratories, he explained. According to the EuRIC president, these metals don’t pose any risk because the matrix they are in – the metals – prevent them from being “bio-available” to humans.

The bottom line, Schuy warned, is that a reclassification of alloys scrap as hazardous would severely harm scrap steel recycling in Europe – if not halt it altogether.

More work needed

But a scheduled assessment of REACH by the Commission concluded on 5 March that the original obligations set up by the regulation a decade ago are still necessary in order to safeguard citizen health. Schuy said EuRIC welcomed the Commission’s stock-taking.

While insisting that REACH is fit for purpose, the EU’s Environment chief, Karmenu Vella, called the rules “the best standards on chemical protection in the world”. But the review acknowledged there is room for improvement and that “progress towards the objectives is lagging behind initial expectations”.

The 300-page document warned that the bloc’s treasured precautionary principle has not been fully applied and said that there are problems with substance registration dossiers.

It also revealed that just 81 decisions on substance evaluation were issued by 2016, far below the expected 448 that were predicted, and that the EU is not on course to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on providing a non-toxic environment.

Eurostat gauges EU progress on SDG implementation

Eurostat, the European Union statistical office, published on Monday (20 November) a monitoring report on how the EU as a whole implements the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), showing “significant” progress in five of them and “moderate” progress for eight others.

Environmental groups welcomed the EU executive’s critical view of REACH but called on the Commission to ensure industry complies with the legislation rather than just simplifying the process.

ClientEarth lawyer Alice Bernard said “regarding authorisation, the Commission seems to focus on making it easier for companies to apply and get an authorisation rather than truly promoting the use of safer solutions”.

Ultimately, by ensuring that products do not contain hazardous materials, policymakers and industry will make it far easier for the EU to hit and even exceed its ambitious recycling targets.

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The European Commission presented on Tuesday (16 January) its eagerly anticipated strategy on how the EU intends to approach plastic production and pollution over the next decade and beyond.

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