EU legislators strike early morning deal on waste

Member states agreed, among other things, to cap landfilling of waste to 10%. But some got more time than others. [Shutterstock]

After marathon talks, negotiators from the European Parliament and the Council of EU member states reached agreement on a proposed package of waste legislation in the early hours of Monday (18 December).

The package includes four EU directives introducing new binding recycling targets, a cap on landfilling, and schemes to ensure that manufacturers cover the end-of-life treatment of products.

The agreement was struck at 4.30am after almost 18 hours of negotiations, EURACTIV has learned.

Recycling and landfilling targets

The specifics agreed by Parliament and Council include a new 65% binding target for recycling of household waste by 2035, mirroring the Commission’s proposal, but lower and slower than what the Parliament had called for (70% by 2030).

On recycling of packaging materials, member states lowered the Parliament’s ambition: 70% of packaging waste should be prepared for reuse and recycling (vs. 75%).

Member states also agreed to cap landfilling of waste to 10% by 2035, giving themselves five more years to adapt than in the Commission’s original proposal, and ten more years  (by 2040) to countries whom in 2013 still landfilled more than 60% of their waste – Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Romania, and Slovakia, according to Eurostat data.

“In the EU, nearly a third of municipal waste is landfilled, with a limited share of the total being recycled,” said Siim Kiisler, Estonia’s environment minister chairing the trilogue talks on the package.

“With this agreement, EU member states are committing to clear EU targets on reuse, recycling and landfilling and rules to improve the management of different waste streams,” Kiisler added, saying: “This will help accelerate our transition towards a circular economy and minimise our impact on the planet.”

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Producer pays 

A key sticking point relates to contributions paid by private companies to finance the collection and recycling of waste – the so-called “extended producer responsibility” schemes (EPR).

Member states and MEPs agreed that for existing national schemes, producers should cover a minimum of 50% of disposal costs, in order to safeguard their existence.

But for new schemes, manufacturers must cover the full cost of coverage, unless member states choose to reduce this to 80%. In this case, the remaining 20% will have to be paid for by “the original waste producers or distributors” – in most cases, the consumers, through “pay as you throw” schemes, or by means of taxes.

Green MEPs also managed to include a clause to factor the cost of treating hazardous substances in the end-of-life fee that producers will have to pay, to encourage them to switch to less harmful alternatives.

Food Waste

Another element which delayed an agreement this morning was the definition of an “indicative” EU-wide target to halve food waste by 2050.

“This is really just a face-saving thing,” commented Axel Singhofen, an environmental policy advisor for the Greens in the European Parliament. “We wanted to have an aspirational target in the articles. But this did not fly.”

The EU committed to halving food waste by 2030 under the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDG’s), but the objective only refers to retailers and consumers.

Member states dug in their heels, arguing that there is no reliable data on what to count as food waste (some of it is inedible by both humans and animals, and hence it is not clear whether it should be counted). As a consequence, EU national representatives refused to agree on binding targets.

The commission will have to produce a methodology on which member states will have to agree: “There is a process in place to end up with legally binding targets by 2030, but there is still a long way to go,” said Singhofen.

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Marine Litter

Marine litter has been pushed up the EU’s agenda, including in the “Our Ocean” conference hosted by Malta, where the EU committed to reducing leakage of plastics into the environment, giving a foretaste of its plastics strategy, to be published on 16 January.

(Incidentally, in Malta the European Commission pledged to phase-out all single-use plastic cups comes the new year.)

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Member states agreed to identify key sources of plastics leakage into the sea and try to halt it, provided that measures are “proportionate and non-discriminatory.” These include national measures such as the UK’s announced tax on single-use plastics.

Member states could also choose to adopt restrictive regulatory measures, including bans. In its upcoming Plastics Strategy, the Commission is expected to propose banning at least certain types of single-use plastics packaging.

“Marne litter won’t be solved by going for biodegradable plastic bags,” said Singhofen.

EU ambassadors will be debriefed on the outcome of the talks on 20 December. The final analysis of the text will take place under the incoming Bulgarian presidency in the new year.

After the formal approval, the new legislation will be submitted to the European Parliament for a vote in the first reading and to the Council for the final adoption.

Positions

Martin Bowman, campaign director of This Is Rubbish, said: "We urge the European Commission to set a methodology for measurement of EU food waste by 2018, and to formally recommend to member states that they interpret the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, to which they are committed, as a goal to halve food losses and waste from farm to fork by 2030, not just to halve food waste at consumer and retail level. Up to 59% of Europe's food waste occurs before the retail level, on farms and in manufacturing, so it is essential this is not sidelined - this is in line with the World Resources Institute's recommended best practice for implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which recommends that food waste should be halved from the point food is ready to harvest through to consumer level."

 "If the EU will not take action collectively, we urge EU member states to make up for this by setting their own national targets to halve food waste from farm to fork by 2030, beginning measurement as soon as possible, and to introduce a food waste hierarchy to prioritise the use of food waste to human consumption and as livestock feed over other uses."

The European non-ferrous metals association (Eurometaux) welcomed new provisions to measure recycling rates more accurately and promote high-quality metals recycling.However, we regret that EU institutions have lost ambition in allowing flexible recycling targets for aluminium and other packaging. This is one of several potential loopholes for member states to escape the package’s overall ambition. The Circular Economy’s success will now be dependent on each government’s implementation.

Guy Thiran, Eurometaux’s Director General, stated: “What’s most important is that EU negotiators have today agreed on a singular vision for taking our waste legislation forwards. We congratulate the Estonian Presidency and other negotiators for their commitment to making progress”.

“Member States are now obliged to measure or estimate how much waste they really recycle. Although we had recommended a harmonised measure, we’re pleased governments will take a first step beyond only reporting what’s collected or sorted. The Commission now has a key role in making sure the new method works in practice, instead of becoming another loophole. Member States should be prevented from making estimations that continue overstating their recycling performance”

Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at  European Environmental Bureau (EEB):
“This is not the outcome we all hoped for, but it is nonetheless a significant improvement compared with the laws that are currently in place. We are happy the discussions are now over. Now member states and EU institutions need to build on this decision to fully transition to a circular economy."

“Member states lacked the ambition shown by the European Parliament and Commission throughout the negotiations, especially with regards to recycling and preparation for reuse."

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