Steel for the packaging industry: A more ambitious Circular Economy Package is needed

Alexander Mohr

The steel for packaging industry is in favour of very high recycling targets, and is concerned by the European Commission’s withdrawal of the revised Circular Economy Package, Alexander Mohr told EURACTIV Slovakia, in an exclusive interview.

Alexander Mohr is Secretary General of APEAL (the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging.)

Mohr spoke to Zuzana Gabrizova, Editor-in-Chief of EURACTIV Slovakia.

Last Fall, the European Commission withdrew the Circular Economy Package intended to increase resource efficiency and environment protection, because of the lack of “foreseeable agreement” between policymakers. However, it promised to re-table an even more ambitious version by the end of 2015. How did APEAL and its members perceive the withdrawal? Do you think that the more ambitious legislative package has a chance to be approved?

APEAL was extremely concerned by the European Commission’s withdrawal of the revised Circular Economy Package.

Our organisation has long shared the opinion that all EU member states should expand their efforts to reach higher recycling targets for all packaging materials, in the interest of recognising waste as a resource whose recovery and reinjection into the EU economy contributes to resource efficiency, emissions reduction and the circular economy.

The steel for packaging industry’s own objective has long been an average European recycling rate for steel of 80% by 2020. If Europe is to move towards a more resource efficient future, ambitious legislation will be crucial in pushing all materials across all EU member states to improve their performance.

Steel is currently the most recycled packaging material in Europe, with a recycling rate of 75% in 2013. We will continue to put resources into ensuring that the full benefits of steel as a sustainable packaging material are understood across Europe, and we look forward to the more ambitious, new proposal from the Commission.

Some of the EU’s big member states, such as the UK, openly oppose the idea of the binding recycling targets for the different types of waste. According to a leaked document, they would like to see more voluntary agreements with the industry and initiatives that reward behavioural change. Why do you think we need binding targets? 

We at APEAL have always advocated for the higher recycling targets set within the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), one of the six bills contained within the Circular Economy Package. The PPWD has encouraged continuous improvement in recycling rates since its introduction, and we are encouraged to see that MEPs appear very much in favour of carrying this trend forward by setting even more ambitious targets in the push towards a circular economy.

The original circular economy package envisaged recycling targets for 2030 at 70% for municipal waste, 90% for paper, 60% for plastic and 90% for ferrous metal and aluminium. Many considered these targets too ambitious. In your opinion, are they achievable?

The 90% target is well within the reach of the steel industry. Indeed, the top five steel recycling countries across Europe already recycle an average of 90% recycling rate between them.

Steel has a unique blend of inherent properties that have been taken advantage of to the fullest extent. Infinite recyclability, without loss of quality, combined with ease of separation from waste streams, thanks to its magnetic nature, makes steel the material of choice.

It is also the case that every steel manufacturing plant across Europe is also a recycling facility, as steel scrap is an inherent part of the production process for new steel. The result is that there is no need to invest in specific recycling plants or extra logistics. Steel can be easily separated from waste streams and transported to local steel manufacturing plants. The overall impact is a further reduction in CO2 emissions and energy usage, which all adds to steel’s sustainability credentials, as well as a simple and efficient recycling process.

In the EU, there are stark differences between the member states’ waste management schemes. For example, Slovakia is currently landfilling about 74% of its municipal waste and Romania is dumping around 99% of its waste. How can these countries achieve the ambitious recycling targets if they are apparently struggling to achieve the already existing ones? 

As steel packaging is only a part of municipal waste, we prefer not to comment.

Some Slovak policymakers assume that increasing the landfill fees, as suggested by experts, would not encourage more recycling, but rather lead to more illegal landfills. Do you think that the increase in the landfill fees is the way forward? 

The landfilling of valuable resources will always be a heavily scrutinised practice, and its reduction is a vital cog in the push towards higher recycling rates. However, the effect of raising landfill fees can only be speculated upon at this stage. It is more important to promote the financial and environmental benefits of recycling and ensuring that infrastructure is in place that fosters higher resource efficiency.

To feed into this narrative, we are hosting a second steel packaging summit specifically oriented to the needs of Central Europe. The summit, “Steel Packaging – Green Solutions for Central Europe 2015″, will take place in the Warsaw Marriot hotel on 8 October 2015, and will be followed by a tour of the ArcelorMittal Warszawa steel manufacturing plant. 

The summit is an opportunity for policy makers, value chain partners and steel producers to present strategies, exchange ideas and communicate a vision for the future of steel as a sustainable packaging solution in a circular economic system.

According to the APEAL data, steel packages are the most recyclable packages in Europe. Is it the case also in Slovakia?

The average recycling rate for steel packaging in EU27 is 75%, the highest of any packaging material. Slovakia has recycled more than 68% of steel packaging since 2011 which makes it the second highest recycler in what we call the V4 countries (Slovakia Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic) meaning there is some potential for increased recycling.

At the last “Steel Packaging – Green Solutions for Central Europe” summit organised by APEAL in Slovakia in 2011, we noted a recurrent call from both customers and policy-makers for simpler environmental legislation in Slovakia and – in best case – a single set of rules for Europe. This was a position supported by APEAL at the time and which is being covered to a certain extent by the Circular Economy package in preparation.

Which EU country has the best recycling scheme for steel packaging? Could their model be implemented also in Slovakia? 

The top five steel recycling countries across Europe have all achieved rates over 90% in recent years. Germany or Belgium currently reach recycling rates of 94% and 92% respectively. What sets these countries apart is their efficient national collection systems which are without doubt a major enabler of the success of recycling initiatives. But underpinning this success is a combination of the simplicity of the steel recycling process, and increasing recognition of the resource efficiency gained from recycling.

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