The Virtuous Circle: Why Permanence and Recycling are Vital for a New EU Economy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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A circle isn’t just a shape. It is a symbol of continuity – of permanence. The European Commission has proposed creating a new circular economy, to boost sustainability and reduce pressure on natural resources.  It is now time for EU law to recognise the value of permanent materials, like glass packaging.

Vanessa Chesnot is a Senior Product Policy Manager at the European Container Glass Federation, FEVE.

Glass is 100 per cent and infinitely recyclable. Glass can be recycled again and again without any loss of quality. As a container for our food, drinks, cosmetics or medicine, glass is inert and acts as a safety barrier. This means that glass protects not only the product but also the people who use the product. A bottle of perfume can be recycled into a jar for beans, with no risk to the consumer or to the contents.

This is a big part of what being a permanent material means. But to date EU policy contains no definition of “permanent material” – unlike renewable resources, which already have well-established definitions and legislation.  Glass has the huge advantages of being inert and non-toxic. Once produced for the first time, glass packaging can be recycled an infinite number of times. Its inherent properties do not change with recycling.

The European Parliament in a 2021 report on the Circular Economy Action Plan already recognised the “ability of a material to retain its inherent properties after recycling, and its ability to replace primary raw materials in future applications”. This is a welcome first step but we must now go further, towards legislative recognition of permanent materials.

Recognition of the concept of permanent materials in the EU policy framework would be a strong incentive to promote further investments in closed-loop, “circular” recycling. This should include creating a positive recycling hierarchy in the waste policy.

The hierarchy could for instance distinguish two categories of materials: the “Non-Multi Recyclable”, indicating products that may be recycled a limited number of times but with significant loss of intrinsic properties; and the “Multi-Recyclable”, or permanent, materials, which can be recycled over and over again with no loss of quality.

A new Circular Economy Action Plan was published in March 2020, as part of a planned EU level Green Deal for a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and competitive economy. It pledged that a transition to a circular economy will reduce pressure on natural resources.

Some 35 actions were sketched out as part of the Circular Economy Action Plan, each to be followed by its own policy. In the coming months, we should see proposals on substantiating green claims made by companies, empowering consumers in the green transition, and on the review of EU requirements on packaging and packaging waste. These proposals are set to influence almost every stage of Europeans’ lives, by ensuring that products and materials we see everywhere, from home to office, or school and doctors’ clinics, are truly sustainable.

The packaging waste directive review should now find space for a recycling hierarchy. The green claims proposal meanwhile should provide access to reliable, comparable, and verifiable information about products and materials, to support sustainable choices. But to provide a real Life Cycle Assessment in this context, we must take account of a material’s potential to remain in multiple loops, rather than as is currently the case focusing on just one life cycle. This is why we are working with the steel and aluminium packaging sectors to develop the concept of Permanent Materials.

There are environmental, social and economic benefits of working with a truly permanent material such as glass. There should be policy recognition and incentives for these materials, and the circular economy gives Europe a place to recognise this.

This also means investing further in the glass collection and recycling infrastructure around Europe, and keeping glass separate from other waste streams – as is already the case in many EU countries. Properly collected and the processed glass becomes the raw material for new and endless, circular production loops, mostly the production of new glass bottles and jars.

On average 76% of glass packaging put on the market is already collected around the EU. For countries including Belgium, that figure rises to 99%. With our partners in Close the Glass Loop, a multi-stakeholder partnership bringing together glass manufacturers, glass recyclers, food & beverage producers, extended producer responsibility schemes, and local and regional authorities, we are aiming to raise that figure to 90% across all 27 EU countries plus the UK.

Glass can therefore already rely on a proven and well-functioning collection stewardship throughout Europe as part of a circular economy, ensuring that resources remain productive in a bottle-to-bottle manufacturing loop. But more investments are needed to ensure that more glass is put back into the loop, as a permanent and precious resource.

Recycling has proven benefits. Compared to producing new glass from raw materials, every tonne of recycled glass used in the furnace avoids the extraction of 1.2 tonnes of virgin raw materials, and every additional 10% of recycled glass in the furnace reduces the CO2 emissions by 5% and reduces the energy consumption by 3%. FEVE members today use more recycled content than virgin materials in our packaging: on average 52% of the raw materials we use is recycled glass.

Presenting the circular economy action plan last year, the European Commission said its new initiative “targets how products are designed, promotes circular economy processes, encourages sustainable consumption, and aims to ensure that waste is prevented and the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible.”

An ambitious strategy indeed. But if we look at what we already have, a circular EU economy is not so far away. Glass containers are endlessly recyclable and refillable bottles can be reused up to 50 times and still be recycled at the end of their life. We must now create the legislation and infrastructure to support the permanency of the EU circle.

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