Not all recycling is equal. As the European Commission prepares to revise the EU’s packaging waste directive, policymakers want to remove degradation and waste from the process.
As consumers, when we put our recycling bags in the bin or out on the street, that’s the last we hear of them. We trust that the effort we’ve taken to sort and dispose of our waste means that this material will be recycled and used in another product.
But that’s not always how it works.
How effective the recycling is depends on how closed the recycling loop is. With open loop recycling, a product is recycled but has to be mixed with new raw materials in order to become a new product, typically leading to downcycling – where the recycled product is of an inferior quality to the original.
With closed loop recycling, packaging is collected and recycled into new packaging, or converted back to a raw material, without mixing or downcycling. This loop can be performed indefinitely, without losing its properties during the recycling process.
Closed-loop recycling is obviously preferable from both an efficiency and an environmental standpoint. However, it isn’t always possible. The question confronting policymakers is, how closed can we get the loop with various waste streams?
Last year the European Commission launched a Circular Economy Action Plan as one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal. The wide range of proposals listed in there are set to influence almost every aspect of our lives, by ensuring that products and materials we see everywhere – from home to office, or school and doctors’ clinics – are brought into a circular process of reuse and recycling.
Part of the EU action plan is an upcoming review of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) that will aim to ensure that “all packaging on the EU market are recyclable or reusable in an economically viable way by 2030”. It will build on the last revision of the directive that set new recycling targets for packaging, measuring the actual recycling of packaging materials – not just collection rates.
“How you define circularity is important,” says Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish lawmaker who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the new circular economy action plan. “A big part is the process of product design. If you have a bad product design, you can collect whatever waste streams you want but the level of reuse is poor. So there you need the extended producer liability,” she said at a recent EURACTIV event.
The Commission is expected to come out with its proposal to revise the packaging waste directive early next year. One of the ideas being floated is to introduce recycled content targets for specific packaging formats. The concept is strongly supported in the European Parliament, where MEPs believe it can create a market for secondary raw materials in Europe, and boosting the demand for recycled material rather than relying on virgin material.
Rozalina Petrova, a staffer in the cabinet of EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, said the EU executive is considering targets as a way to ensure closed-loop recycling for materials when it’s possible because it’s proven the best way to get all actors in the value chain working together.
“We’ve already seen what very well-targeted requirements can bring in the context of the single use plastic directive,” she said. “We’ve seen that while the recycling industry is ready to supply the material, actually there is not so much readiness for the producers to take on this recycled content.”
The chicken-or-the-egg question for the Commission is whether the problem lies in a lack of recycled content, with producer reticence to use recycled content, or a combination of both.
EU officials are therefore considering whether to propose a mandatory recycled content proportion, or to instead focus on increasing collection. The worry is that for some material, such as plastic, an increase in collection may not result in an increased use of recycled material if open loop recycling processes are still leading to a quality degradation.
The answer varies based on the type of material. Glass, for instance, has relatively closed loop recycling and so the focus could be more on increasing collection.
“Recycled glass is our most important raw material, and the amount of recycled glass we can put in our production directly depends on the availability of recycled glass,” said Vanessa Chesnot, product policy manager at the European Container Glass Federation, FEVE.
To bridge the gap, FEVE has been working with beverage companies in an initiative to increase collection. “76% of glass put on the market is collected. We want to get back this 24%, but as glass manufacturers we can’t do it alone. That depends on the whole value chain working together and collaborating,” she said at the EURACTIV event, supported by FEVE.
Paper is another material which has a more closed loop recycling pattern and where solutions could be found more at the collection level.
“We believe that [mandatory recycled content targets] should only be imposed where the recycling value chain is not well functioning, which is the case of plastic,” said Annick Carpentier, director general at the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment. “But it is not the case for paper,” she told EURACTIV recently.
For plastic, the situation is being complicated by difficulties in accessing recycled materials, Patricia Fosselard, secretary general of Natural Mineral Waters Europe, said at the EURACTIV event. “We’re currently facing a challenge – there isn’t enough recycled PET on the market for us to close the loop,” she said. “So for this to become a reality we clearly need an increase in collection and improvement in sorting, and also an important factor would be access to recycled packaging material.”
So which materials are best suited for closed-loop recycling? Vanya Veras, secretary general of Municipal Waste Europe, said the answer is more complicated than it might first appear.
“When we talk about closed loop recycling, the most problematic materials are generally plastics,” she said at the event. “Any materials eco-designed with a purpose of closed loop recycling are suitable for closed-loop recycling. Everything else has to be treated in a different way.”
“There are gaping holes in our waste management system globally and particularly in Europe,” she added. “It doesn’t matter how good our collection system is or how good our materials are. If the situation continues where there are untraced shipments of waste within and outside of Europe, we will continue to lose waste to the wrong type of treatment, or even to landfills or dumps.”
But the question of how to increase that collection is a contentious one. Some EU countries, such as Germany, have deposit return schemes where customers are charged a fee for bottles that they only get back if they return them to a bottle bank. In Germany this system exists for both glass and plastic bottles. But other countries, such as Belgium, have no deposit return scheme at all.
“These discussions happened [while crafting] the single use plastics directive,” the Commission’s Petrova recalled. “At that time there was a lot of debate about whether deposit refund systems are a silver bullet to achieve high separate collection…or if they’re the silver bullet for bottles that would kill all the others.”
“The question whether to introduce a deposit refund scheme, or another arrangement under extended producer responsibility, was left open to take account of subsidiarity – local conditions or arrangements,” Petrova added. “Deposit refund schemes are an excellent example of behavioral science. In this way the waste really gets value for the one that holds it. But then the question is whether there are trade offs with other materials, in case we perceive as valuable only the stuff where we get back a refund, while the others aren’t managed as properly.”
As the Commission readies its proposal to see the light of day in a few months, stakeholders in the packaging and beverage sectors will be watching closely for policies that could have a major effect on how they operate.
> Watch the full conference below on YouTube
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]