Gerbrandy MEP: ‘I will be proposing a sort of Schengen area for waste’

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Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal MEP who is drafting a resolution on resource-efficiency for the European Parliament, proposes a ‘Schengen area’ for waste that would allow all sorts of second-hand resources to be traded more freely between member states. He spoke to EURACTIV about the priority actions he will try to push for in the coming months and years.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy is a member of the European Parliament, member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). He is a rapporteur on resource efficiency and leads discussion on this topic in the European Parliament.

Can you give us a sneak preview of what's going to be in your report?

Most important is to give it a higher sense of urgency. In a few decades we'll need 70% more food production. We'll have 3 billion more people at middle class income with consumption of middle class income. So the problem that we're facing with the scarcity of resources is huge.

That's why I'm focusing on getting much faster towards a circular economy that has much more re-use and recycling of materials. These are the main elements of my report.

I strongly believe that this is a societal challenge – not something from government or from industry, no – this is a joint effort we have to undertake.

One of the concrete measures I would like to propose is to setup a sectoral task force and ask them to come up within one year with an action plan to become much more efficient with the resources that are used within such a sector.

What sectors are you thinking about? Can you give an example of how this can be done?

Well for instance construction uses half of all our resources. There are huge gains to be made in the construction sector. That's one, but also in the chemical industry or food production. Food waste is still a huge problem.

Waste as a sector itself is also very promising. We have to design our products differently, in such a way that we can recover the materials that are in it. Right now the eco-design directive only focuses on energy parts of products but it should also focus on the materials used, that we can recover everything that is in our products.

You mentioned during the conference today the problem that there is within the European Union itself to exchange waste between countries. How do you think this problem should be addressed?

Yes, it's too hard to transport waste across borders. If you want to recycle certain elements then you need economies of scale.

That's why I will be proposing a sort of 'Schengen Area for waste' to make it much easier to get your old lightbulbs to one or two places in Europe and to recycle everything that is in these lightbulbs.

Of course under the normal restrictions of safety for chemicals and dangerous waste, we have to be very careful. But now there are so many national, regional and even local laws and rules that it's impossible for companies to transport their very valuable waste.

Should that be done through a new directive at European level or should that be done through amendments to existing legislation?

It's not even European legislation we're talking about. This is much more local regulations.

I think we need some sort of action programme within Europe, together with the member states because they have to strongly believe in it as well, and regional and local authorities, to tackle this problem.

The same way we have done with the internal market we have for capital, services, and people.

A lot of concern has been heard today at the conference about China and the export restrictions it is putting in place on some metals and other raw materials. It is something of concern to a lot of industries. How do you think the EU should respond to this?

By focusing much more on free trade. We're trying to do through the European Union's free trade agreements with India and other countries to get as few restrictions as possible.

I am a liberal. I strongly believe in free trade. We as the European Union are profiting a lot from free trade. Focusing on free trade and the WTO, as the legislative body on free trade, is a very important way forward.

You also mentioned during the conference the importance of price signals. What are your concrete proposals on that?

Yes I strongly believe in price signals. Our economy is addicted to low-cost resources. That was the case for 150 years and up to 10 years ago when the prices went up.

I believe at this moment with very high prices for resources it makes no sense to introduce a tax on raw materials. I'd rather promote the use of recycled materials by lowering the VAT or having other price instruments to make it more profitable for a company to use recycled materials.

This is something that would require unanimity with the member states. Do you think it has any chance of going through?

It should because it is the right way forward. If member states want the wealth and well-being that we have now in Europe, we need to go along this path.

It's the only way forward. Resources are becoming scarcer and scarcer so the only way forward is to go towards this circular economy, to have this green economy, and then we need to promote the use of recycled materials.

Maybe to finish on that point: There has been a lot of concern expressed today about price volatility with some raw materials changing hands many times before reaching the consumer. There are questions of transparency on the market. Do you share those concerns and what are your views on that?

I do share them because they are a fact of life. The European Parliament as the European Commission to do a few studies on this price volatility. I think it's better to wait for the results of these studies rather than coming now with a lot of concrete proposals.

There are political reasons as well for certain countries or people to blame the financial markets for price volatility when often it is also underperforming industrial sectors.

Financial markets play a very important role but they should not play a disturbing role. The same is true for countries. If a country like China is able to by themselves dictate the price of copper in the world then we do have a serious problem.

But that might be something that we can address bilaterally and also at WTO level.

We mentioned during the conference the pilot projects to within 10 years have full recyclability of certain products and raw materials. Can you give us more examples on this?

Yes, I want these pilots to show that we not only have to think in incremental, small steps, but that we can, if we really, really want to, obtain in a few years a circular economy in certain resources.

I talked about phosphorous. I identified a few rare earths where it should be possible technically speaking. And I'm asking the European Commission to identify a few more to have five or six materials where we go for a 100% recycling rate.

In particular?

There are certain rare earths used in these modern, sustainable lamps for instance. There are very tiny amounts of it but it is possible to recover it.

If we are able to setup a European programme to recover these very precious rare earth metals than it would be a huge step forward. And it is possible so why not start doing it?

Looking at these lamps in particular and collecting and recycling them all.

Yes and we also need this waste Schengen Area because otherwise it's impossible to get these old lamps at one or two places in Europe to start recovering these precious resources.

Read a related news article here.

Watch a video interview with Gerbrandy captured at a workshop organised by EURACTIV on the scarcity of raw materials and what could be done to tackle the problem:

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