Experts criticise muddled EU waste proposals

The Commission’s proposals on waste are foggy on key definitions that are at the heart of the new strategy focusing on life-cycle thinking, a panel of MEPs, business and NGO experts agreed.

The main elements of the Commission’s proposals are:

  • Life-cycle approach: The strategy proposes to look beyond the pollution caused by waste to consider its potential contribution to a more sustainable use of natural resources and raw materials. This aspect is dealt with in a related strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources (EURACTIV 21 Dec. 2005)
  • Prevention: Member states are required to develop national waste prevention policies and report every three years
  • Recycling: EU-wide environmental standards on recycling are to be adopted to “support the development of an EU market for secondary (recycled) materials”
  • Simplifying existing legislation: This is also a major priority which will apply along the principles of the Commission’s ‘better regulation’ initiative.
  • Targets: The new strategy does not impose specific waste recycling or prevention targets and leaves it up to member states to set some if they wish
  • Incineration: A revision of the IPPC Directive (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control) is to be tabled that will set a benchmark to improve energy recovery from municipal incinerators. The Commission says the new energy efficiency benchmark “will determine whether an incinerator can be identified as a recovery facility instead of a disposal facility”.

A panel debate organised on 7 June by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) tried to assess whether EU strategies for prevention and recycling of waste were at a turning point.

Timo Mäkelä, Director for Sustainable Development and integration at the Commission's environment directorate, said the new approach on waste policy had to be seen as "an evolution, rather than a revolution," building on what already exists. 

Waste streams, he said, are going to remain as they are, as is the existing waste hierarchy which will "by and large" remain the same as originally spelt out in a 1975 directive. The waste hierarchy ranks waste management options in a pre-defined order, the very best solution being to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place (waste prevention). After that, reuse is preferred to recycling which, in turn, is preferred to incineration. Disposal at a landfill is the least favourable solution.

According to Mäkelä, the new aspects of the proposals relate to standards for waste management and the life-cycle approach with a focus on prevention. "There has been too much top-down thinking so far," Mäkelä said, adding: "What is needed is a bottom-up approach, from the member states to the Commission". Most important to Mäkelä is to increase confidence in EU standards (e.g.: on composting) and to establish a level-playing field for business operators.

The rapporteur in the European Parliament on the waste framework directive, Caroline Jackson MEP (EPP-ED, UK), was highly critical of the Commission's proposal, saying it failed to provide key definitions, for instance on the life-cycle approach. "There is no description or definition of it in any document," said Jackson, who added that she would not attempt to draft a definition in the Parliament. As a consequence, it is still unclear how member states can move away from the 5-stage waste hierarchy because this has to be justified on the condition that it is based on a life-cycle approach. "Do member states have to apply to deviate [from the waste hierarchy]", she asked? And if so, who should they apply to? Another difficulty lies in defining waste as a resource or raw material, which implies drawing a clear line between waste which is to be treated as a resource, waste which can be recovered and waste which is to be disposed of.

Jackson then pointed to an annex of the directive (Annex II, parag. R.1), which deals with the use of waste as a means to generate energy, for example in municipal incineration facilities. Incinerator operators, she said, are in the middle of long term contracts with municipalities and "they have no clue whether incineration is to be treated as disposal or recovery" under the revised directive. The Commission, she said, did not produce an impact assessment on this as it normally required to do.

Erika Mink, environmental director for Europe at beverage carton manufacturer Tetra Pack, said corporate voluntary programmes are enough and that more EU legislation is not needed. "Life-cycle assessments already exist in business as a standard tool," she said speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE). She said ACE member companies are already leading the way on sustainable forest management, with 100% of paperboard used in packaging coming from certified forests.

ACE is also sceptical about setting targets on waste prevention whether at EU or national level, with Mink saying these can be turned into unproductive bureaucratic tools. She deplored the "lack of effective EU guidelines" on fiscal instruments to support waste policies, saying national measures can only lead to the fragmentation of the EU market for secondary raw materials.

Melissa Shinn, senior policy officer on waste, product policy and natural resources at the European Environmental Bureau - a federation of Environmental NGOs -, warned about the lack of a harmonised definition on how to measure avoided waste. "We could end up with 25 different sets of ways to measure waste prevention," Shinn warned, adding: "we have to have a harmonised way to assess progress". A good starting point, she said, would be to stabilise waste generation, an objective which would imply decoupling waste production from economic growth. Shinn also welcomed that the 5-step waste hierarchy is "hopefully a done deal" in the Council. But she said that having the hierarchy without then setting up the parallel provisions to put it in action in the waste framework directive means that it risks not being implemented in the end.

A host of EU directives already exist that deal with specific waste 'streams'. These relate for example to used vehicles, waste from electric and electronic equipment (WEEE), waste batteries, sewage sludge and packaging waste (see full list of EU waste legislation here).

In 2005, the Commission presented a new Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling and proposed an updated version of the waste framework directive. The strategy reviews and streamlines existing legislation within a single, comprehensive framework (see EURACTIV 21 Dec. 2005).

  • 27 June 2006: Environment Council to possibly conclude on the thematic strategy and agree on: waste definitions, waste hierarchy, life-cycle approach
  • 10 October 2006: Expected vote in Parliament's environment committee on the waste framework directive (1st reading)
  • 14 November 2006: Expected vote in Parliament's plenary on the waste framework directive (1st reading)
  • End 2006: Possible Council agreement on the waste framework directive under Finnish Presidency (1st reading)

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