Circular economy plan seeks to unlock EU waste trade

Recycling Bins

Recycling bins in Santorini, Greece. [Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE  / The European Commission’s Circular Economy Package, due on Wednesday (2 December), will aim to succeed where policymakers previously failed: ensuring recycled waste is of sufficient quality to be freely traded across borders.

The Commission hopes its new Circular Economy Package of legislation will offer an opportunity to “reinvent our economy” and provide European businesses with cheaper and more abundant raw materials than global competitors.

At the centre of this vision is the creation of a market for secondary raw materials “which can be traded and shipped just like primary raw materials from traditional extractive resources”, according to a draft Commission communication obtained by EURACTIV.

This vision is still a far cry from reality, however. Companies wishing to use recycled raw materials are currently faced with “uncertainty as to their quality”, the executive acknowledges in the communication, which outlines its future legislative plans.

>>Read: New Circular Economy Package ‘less ambitious’ than axed predecessor

The plastic sector is a case in point, with potential buyers often turned off by the level of impurity in recycled plastic. And although quality checks are made, they lack credibility because they are done visually, says Stéphane Arditi, a green campaigner at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“How are you supposed to spot 20kg of impurity in 1,000kg of recycled plastics with your naked eye?” Arditi wonders. “This is mission impossible. So the controls are not credible.”

As a result, about 25% of recycled materials in Europe are currently exported because of insufficient home demand, according to Jean-Louis Chaussade, the CEO of Suez Environment, a French industrial giant specialised in recycling and waste management. A figure that goes up to 50% for sorted plastics in the UK.

And similar quality issues are common to all other types of secondary raw materials—from paper to metals or fertilisers made from organic waste.

The European Commission’s new Circular Economy Package seems to acknowledge these problems. “In the absence of EU-wide standards, it can be difficult to ascertain impurity levels, or suitability for high-grade recycling,” the EU executive writes in its draft communication.

“The Commission will therefore launch work on EU-wide quality standards for secondary raw materials where needed, in consultation with the industries concerned.”

When waste becomes a product

If the executive succeeds, it will put an end to a long-running stalemate. For years, policymakers have stumbled on a simple question: When exactly does waste cease being waste, and becomes a tradable product?

It is not for lack of trying. End-of-waste criteria already exist for a range of products like paper or metal scrap, but policymakers and industry stakeholders failed to agree on criteria for a whole range of other secondary products, including plastics.

And even when they did, implementation proved difficult.

“End-of-waste criteria do exist for some products but different interpretations are made, even sometimes within the same country,” Chaussade told a small group of journalists during a recent visit to Brussels.

In practice, this means recycled materials can hardly be traded across municipalities or regions, which have authority on waste collection and recycling schemes. In France, for instance, you would find it difficult to trade beyond one or two départements.

“For example, depending on the different qualities, recycled paper can become a product” that can be traded, Chaussade said. “Whereas solid recovered fuels, which are made out of certain types of waste and used as an alternative by energy-intensive industries, are still considered as waste although they can be traded. Plastic is also an issue because no end-of-life criteria have been developed so far and plastic volumes are significant in Europe.”

A Schengen area of waste?

Previous attempts to create an EU-wide trading area for waste have fallen flat.

Back in 2012, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal MEP, tried pushing the idea of a ‘Schengen Area for waste’. He made the point that national, regional and even local laws often made it impossible for companies to transport their recycled raw materials, preventing economies of scale.

>> Read: Lawmaker proposes ‘Schengen area for waste’, recycling

Although companies like Suez Environnement support free trade in principle, Chaussade believes a single EU market for waste won’t happen overnight, as local authorities will likely remain in charge of trash collection and treatment schemes.

“The subsidiarity principle will not change, meaning that it is up to the local communities to choose how they want to manage waste. That being said, there is room for harmonisation of the rules and definitions of end-of-waste that will allow more fluid exchanges,” Chaussade says.

“We are not saying that waste should be travelling everywhere,” Chaussade replied when asked by EURACTIV about previous attempts to create a ‘Schengen area’ for waste. “We are rather calling for clear definitions to be agreed as to how we go from a waste situation to a product situation. It’s a complex issue, but we need to have some rules and guidance at European level.”

Standards as the way forward

For Arditi, it is time for policymakers to draw conclusions from the past and move on. Otherwise, EU countries will be tempted to develop their own standards and undermine the single market.

“What is crystal clear is that so far the end-of-waste process has not delivered. And because it has not delivered, member states can now claim that they will develop their own end-of-waste criteria, creating major distortions on the EU Single Market with competing national regimes.”

For Arditi, standards are clearly the way forward.

“If we have sufficient quality standards for recycling, then we limit the need to carry out inspections on recycled materials. They can be considered a secondary material, and be traded as such,” Arditi stresses.

He says there could even be “a kind of grading of quality standards” so that those manufacturers who need high quality materials can be confident they will get it and use it as virgin raw material.

End-of-waste criteria can help, he contends, but only in a transition phase and with strict quality criteria to ensure recycled materials are as close as possible to virgin raw materials.

“If the EU wants to keep the end-of-waste approach, then it needs to be much more efficient and close the possibility for national or even regional authorities to develop their own end-of-waste criteria. Otherwise it makes no sense because a product by definition is something that can be traded on the EU market.”

Jean-Louis Chaussade agrees on this point. For him, the scope and definitions of EU waste legislation should definitely be clarified.

“For example, in some member states, the definition of recycling starts when the waste arrives at the sorting centre. When exiting the sorting centre, some of the waste flows will be recycled but others will be refused. So the definition should be based on what comes out of the sorting centre and not what comes in,” Chaussade said.

Industrial waste

According to the Suez CEO, the executive’s new Circular Economy Package has only one major weakness—it focuses too much on municipal waste, and fails to cover the whole spectrum and volume of waste.

“On average in Europe, you have one tonne of municipal waste produced for three tonnes of commercial and industrial waste,” Chaussade said. There are of course targets for specific waste streams like packaging or cars – so-called end of life vehicles – which can be considered as industrial waste.

But to date, there is no clear definition of industrial or commercial waste, which would be the first step towards regulating this area. “A second step could be to think about what targets could be applied to this specific type of waste,” he says.

The Circular Economy Package was intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill.

It consists of six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment.

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was given a mandate from President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”. Better regulation is an EU reform that the UK government has demanded. 

He told MEPs in December that he would withdrawing and re-tabling the package, to make it "more ambitious". 

>>Full coverage on: Circular Economy

>>Full coverage on: Better Regulation

  • 2 December: Expected launch of new Circular Economy Package

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