Pressure mounts on EU member states to meet plastic recycling goals

Shoppers return their bottles and cans of reusable packagings in a reverse vending machine. [defotoberg / Shutterstock]

Pressure is increasing on member states to recycle 77% of plastic bottles by 2025 and reduce waste.

Currently, there is great disparity between member states, with some, like Germany and Denmark, already surpassing the target set out in the single use plastics directive, and others, like France and Hungary, falling short.

Maria Spyraki, a Greek lawmaker sitting on the European Parliament’s industry committee, said countries need to “speed up” and have more political will to change.

One solution put forward by industry to reach the 2025 target is deposit return schemes (DRS), where the public pay more for a product and the extra is returned to them when they take the packaging to a reverse vending machine.

The hope is that cleaner polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the higher-grade plastic used for food and drink – is returned to producers, improve recycling rates and reduce the amount of marine waste, 80% of which is plastic.

But member states face a huge organisational challenge to introduce deposit return schemes and make them work by 2025.

“Implementation is expensive. It must be very well organised. When it functions very well … you will get back your investment,” said Philippe Diercxsens, environment manager at Danone Waters who spoke at a recent EURACTIV online event.

If successful, the industry could become circular before 2029, he pointed out, adding however: “I think there is a lack of political will in some countries to introduce DRS. It’s not an easy system. It’s a lot of organisation.”

Solutions like deposit return schemes are likely to become necessary following the adoption of the single use plastics directive. Countries not meeting the 77% targets in 2025 may need to implement the system to meet the 2029 target of 90%.

“We all need to wake up to reach that 90%,” said Diercxens.

But Larissa Copello de Souza, a campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, said waste collection schemes risked being “locked into” an inefficient system. “DRS alone cannot solve the problem of waste,” she warned.

For her, reuse is the most important step. She said: “If we can have a system where we use this bottle and return it so it’s washed and refilled, that is the most efficient we can have.”

That’s a “win-win situation” for companies and consumers, she added.

Souza said she wants the deposit return schemes to be further harmonised across the EU  in order to ensure greater consistency, avoid cross border issues and allow more companies to take part.

Diercxens was more sceptical about harmonisation though. Different systems have proved effective in different countries, he argued, saying Germany and Denmark have high levels of recycling using deposit return schemes while Belgium and Switzerland have similar success with extended producer responsibility schemes.

Because the single use plastics legislation is a directive, it gives member states the autonomy to find their own way to meet it, making it unlikely there will be a harmonised system.

Harmonised schemes have been suggested across the waste sector, but the leap to greater standardisation across the EU would be substantial, considering countries like France have different waste systems across their own regions.

Speaking at a previous event, Mattia Pellegrini, a senior official at the European Commission’s environment directorate, said disparities between waste systems means “many things that are recyclable end up in the residual bin”.

He added: “By having this harmonised colour-coding, this would also facilitate pan-European campaigns.”

Critics of deposit return schemes also say it puts the burden on consumers to recycle instead of the industry. De Souza insisted on incentives for business to buy into the scheme and not pass the price onto the consumer, which might drive them away.

Whilst the Commission, industry and campaigners agree that deposit return schemes are a good step, it is up to the member states to make the systems easy to use and understandable for consumers.

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(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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