A European Commission proposal to ban recyclable waste going to landfill won potentially decisive support from Warsaw and the packaging industry as ministers prepare for talks on Friday (4 March) to convince hesitant Eastern European member states.
The EU’s 28 environment ministers will hold a first exchange of views on the Commission’s circular economy package of proposals at Friday’s Environment Council in Brussels.
Part of the discussion will centre on “economic incentives” to boost markets for recycled raw materials, according to a note circulated by the Dutch Presidency of the EU ahead of the meeting.
One of the Commission’s flagship proposals is to ramp up recycling by imposing a ban on landfill for separately collected waste by 2030.
And packaging manufacturers are huge fans.
Erika Mink, head of public affairs at Swedish packaging giant Tetra Pak, believes a 2030 ban is achievable and would help create a market for secondary raw materials.
“One should aim high as we look towards 2030. For us, that means implementing the waste hierarchy, meaning that no packaging should go to landfill,” she told EURACTIV in an interview.
Other parts of the packaging industry are equally enthusiastic.
Metal Packaging Europe, a trade association of can and tin makers, says it “has always been supportive of progressive landfill bans” and other economic instruments such as pay- as-you-throw schemes (PAYT) to stimulate collection, sorting and recycling of waste.
And PlasticsEurope, another trade association, is even pushing for a ban to apply as early as 2025, arguing it would “act as a powerful stimulus for recycling” and “have a significant and positive impact on growth, energy savings and job creation in Europe”.
So what’s preventing the European Union from moving forward?
Lack of infrastructure in Eastern EU countries
“It’s true there is a broad consensus on the landfill ban,” says Piotr Barczak, policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green campaign group.
The problem, he said, is that Eastern European countries are lagging behind in setting up what they regard as potentially costly waste collection and treatment schemes.
“EU countries and municipalities cannot agree to zero waste and landfill,” Barczak told EURACTIV. “If you look at Eastern Europe, they don’t have any infrastructure in place, no separate collection schemes. So it has to be disposed and the cheapest way is landfilling,” he said.
A first step is to ensure all recyclable waste is collected and sorted. But having such basic infrastructure in place can be controversial for poorer EU member states.
“Overall, it will require a major effort,” admitted a Polish diplomat in Brussels, saying the move to ban landfill “will require the creation of sorting plants, and a larger capacity of incinerators.”
But overall, he said Poland supported the move to ban landfill by 2030, running against a widespread perception in Brussels that Warsaw is dragging its feet on environmental laws.
“With certain limitations, in principle, we do not think it’s a bad thing to encourage recyclers to take everything that is collected separately,” the Polish diplomat told EURACTIV.
Mediterranean islands will struggle most
Rather than Poland, the most vocal opposition to the landfill ban is likely to come from Romania, which is expected to struggle the most in putting the infrastructure in place. And the costs will be even dearest for islands like Cyprus, Malta and parts of Greece, where the population is dispersed.
“They may need a bit longer,” said Erika Mink from Tetra Pak. “As producers, we face challenges to get enough collected in those countries. But they can also benefit from the experience of Germany or Belgium which have a much higher recycling rate,” she said.
Getting started would not be difficult, Mink claims: “Instead of one bin, you would have two: one for packaging and one for the rest.”
This is easier said than done, however.
While some Eastern European member states already have waste collection and treatment schemes in place, municipalities often lack clear guidance from regulators on how to set those up, resulting in a patchwork of local schemes. At worst, these gaps can be abused by shady local politicians, as illustrated in Italy’s south, where corruption in the waste business is endemic.
For packaging manufacturers like Tetra Pak, a key priority is to ensure recycling taxes paid to local authorities do not go to waste.
“We think it is extremely important to have minimum requirements for EPR schemes included in the packaging and packaging waste directive,” said Erika Mink, referring to local taxes paid via Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes (EPR).
“There has to be a much higher level of transparency on their performance and operations. And they must also be obliged to collect all the materials, so they cannot pick and choose what they like,” Mink said.
The debate on landfill, although seemingly uncontroversial at first, also becomes more complex as soon as incineration is thrown into the mix.
Environmental campaigners say Eastern European countries are hoping to make increased use of waste as an indigenous source of energy and reduce their energy bill.
“Poland is investing too much in incineration, mainly for energy recovery. They say they want to be independent from Russia but it’s so negligible it won’t make a significant difference,” Barczak said.
For environmentalists, Warsaw is missing the point. “Incineration still produces ashes, which typically amounts to 20-30% of the waste, and are difficult to dispose of. They pose problems, maybe even more than regular landfill,” Barczak said.
In the EEB’s view, the landfill target won’t work if measures are not simultaneously taken to limit incineration, which emits ultra-fine particles responsible for over 2 million deaths worldwide every year.
Incineration may even undermine efforts to recycle, the EEB claims, saying municipalities are sometimes obliged to provide a minimum quantity of waste to the incinerator.
“There is consistent evidence that such measures has led to increased waste-to-energy incineration rather than boosting recycling,” the EEB said. “In Austria and Norway, landfill bans even brought decreases in recycling rates,” it claimed.
Environmental campaigners are not alone in making that point, some packaging manufacturers too are becoming wary of incineration.
In a position paper published in October 2014, Metal Packaging Europe (MPE) warned against potential perverse effects of incineration bans, saying such restrictions should only apply for waste that would otherwise be lost.
“There will always be a fraction of the metals ending up in the general household waste stream and Member States should be encouraged to recover this fraction,” MPE said. “We do have to be careful that these measures are used in the right way and do not hamper recycling instead of stimulating it,” it warned, referring to metal extracted from bottom ashes after incineration.
“Extraction of metals from bottom ashes should continue to be recognised as recycling,” MPE said in an e-mailed statement to EURACTIV.
Poland itself is having second thoughts on incineration, saying proposals currently on the table could lead to overcapacity being built up for energy recovery.
“Where we have a problem is on the 10% limitation [for all landfill waste], which could have the negative effect of encouraging incineration,” the Polish diplomat told EURACTIV.
“The Commission’s idea is not formulated in an optimal way,” the diplomat explained, referring to a proposal to cap landfill to a maximum of 10% of all waste by 2030. “We would like to know precisely what waste streams the Commission has in mind,” he said.
Conclusions in June
Faced with potentially divisive talks on waste, the Dutch presidency has tried steering clear of controversy by having a general discussion on the circular economy package at Friday’s Council meeting, without going into the detail of specific legislative proposals at this stage.
Council conclusions on the European Commission’s action plan are expected to be adopted in the Environment Council on June 20.