This article is part of our special report The nitty-gritty of recycling.
European Union members will have to recycle at least 70% of packaging by 2030, under new rules brokered earlier this year. But there are complex mechanisms behind the recycling curtain and not all countries are ready yet to keep up with the pace.
EU lawmakers want the continent’s disparate recycling systems to be more effective and, as a result, more profitable, as there are still ambitious plans to set up an ‘internal market for recycling’.
There is still plenty of attention focused on recycling, particularly its shortcomings, provoked largely by China’s landmark import ban on a whole host of waste materials, as well as the so-called Blue Planet effect.
Rules have been adapted accordingly and, in February 2018, EU capitals signed off on new targets that mean 65% of packaging will have to be recycled by 2025 and 70% by 2030.
Delve deeper and there are also specific targets for different material types, from 30% and 55% by 2030 for wood and plastic, respectively, to 75% and 85% for glass and paper.
But without a change of pace those targets could prove to be out of reach for Europe’s recyclers. According to Eurostat data, the EU as a whole recycled 67% of its packaging in 2016 but there are real issues at member state level.
For example, Hungary only recycled 49.7% of its packaging, while Croatia, Estonia and Latvia barely broke 50%, meaning that model students Belgium and Denmark, which are around the 80% benchmark, are doing much of the heavy lifting.
There is a similar story when it comes to material-specific targets like plastic, where many member states are nowhere near the 2025 goal, let alone the 2030 version.
Success stories in the glass and, to a lesser extent, the metal sector mean the outlook is not totally grim for the EU’s recycling aspirations but experts are in agreement that countries have to start using their resources, both material and legislative, better.
Although EU rules impose targets on member states, they also enable the mechanisms that should allow recycling to increase in scope and effectiveness.
Systems like deposit return schemes (DRS), which add a small cost to the initial purchase of an item and refund it when it is returned to a dedicated ‘reverse vending machine’, are proving popular, particularly when it comes to bottles and cans.
Eight EU nations now have a DRS programme in place and experts believe that three more, including the UK and Portugal, will sign up to one soon.
But DRSs are only a ‘tail-pipe’ solution and, although effective in boosting recycling rates, do little to improve the actual recyclability of packaging items. They have also evolved from rewarding refillable items like glass bottles towards more throwable items.
Sustainability advocates are adamant that the EU’s push for recycling should not just mean more is collected and repurposed but should also encourage people to waste less in the first place.
Extended producer responsibility schemes (EPRS), however, do contribute to the quality of products put on the market, given that they obligate manufacturers to pay for the collection, recycling and even clean-up of products.
That means producers have a vested interest in making their products as easy to recycle as possible, which has led to advancements in eco-design, although EPRs do take longer to start reaping the same sort of final rates as DRSs.
Twenty-five EU countries currently have EPRs in place for different items, from textiles to plastics. Only Denmark, Croatia and Hungary do not have an EPR, although the first two do have active DRSs.
Recyclers have also urged member state to make sure materials are collected separately from one another, to avoid contamination, increase quality and reduce losses all along the recycling process.
To illustrate this point, Christian-Yves Crépet of plastic association PETCORE Europe told EURACTIV that mechanical recycling plants in Europe currently have annual excess capacity of 250,000 tonnes.
The European Commission’s proposal on managing single-use plastic waste will also contribute to the packaging recycling debate, as a recent vote by the European Parliament confirmed that the EU is now on track to ban certain items.
Those include food packaging containers like burger boxes for which no available alternatives are currently available.
But on 16 November the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN), as well as 72 other organisations, urged the EU to ensure that the new rules safeguard the principles of the single market.
EUROPEN and its allies warned that the legislation could subvert the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) and lead to “market fragmentation” if not worded carefully.
Although acknowledging that member states can already apply for derogations from the PPWD when it comes to lightweight plastic carrier bags, the 73 co-signatories agreed that more exemptions could have a “much more harmful effect on the internal market”.
Given that the Parliament, Commission and Council are now locked into three-way talks, the joint letter called on Parliament negotiators to defend their position that the PPWD should always have primacy.
EU sources insist that the current Council presidency holder, Austria, wants to wrap up the single-use plastic file before its stint finishes at the end of the year and a deal could be brokered by the last week of December.