Waste sector calls for fair competition and ‘no grey zones’

(Photo: iStockPhoto)

This article is part of our special report Towards a Resource Efficient Europe.

SPECIAL REPORT / Industry leaders united around a call for fair, transparent and universal minimum extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements in an ongoing review of EU waste management targets, at a Brussels conference last week. 

The European Commission is considering whether to set new targets for waste recovery and recycling, and exploring options for clarifying and simplifying existing legislation, in a proposal due out later this year.  

EU member states, such as the UK, oppose new binding obligations, arguing that “the European Commission should find ways to help member states implement existing targets before setting new targets.”

But several industry spokespeople and waste management experts begged to differ at the symposium, which was held on 18 March at the Brussels Press Club.

“From my experience, industry is ready to endorse EPR under two conditions,” said Professor Christoph Scharff, the CEO of Alstoff Recycling AG Austria, a stock corporation. “Number one is that the regulation makes sense from an ecological point of view. Number two, that there are no loopholes and no grey zones to escape the legislation. The risk I see is of a dysfunctional competitiveness based on free riding.”

Without a rules-based system for companies, markets would be stronger than laws, he argued. “We need targets,” he said, “otherwise recycling will only operate under market conditions in favourable times and we remember what happened in 2008/9 when recycling markets collapsed, so we need a framework.”

Even so, he called for flexibility in the rule’s application to take into account differing conditions across the continent. An OECD spokesman echoed this, noting that different measures might be acceptable to authorities in a ‘start-up phase’.

Olivier De Clerq, a waste management policy officer for the Commission, referred to “big challenges” in some countries like Romania and signposted “proposals regarding the ensuring of fair competition.”

“We directly have to stress the role of the public authorities,” he said. “In the end there is a strong need for enforcement, a good framework, data collection and monitoring and clear sanctions and control on free riders when these are not met.”

Recycling target

By 2020, the EU has set a target for recycling at 50% or more of all household municipal waste, within its waste framework directive. But the European Court of Auditors has criticised the bloc’s waste management infrastructure, which has received €10.8 billion in structural funding since 2000, for “limited” effectiveness.

Eurostat figures show that 37% of the average European’s waste ends up in landfills – the least environmentally friendly form of disposal – and 23% is incinerated, a less damaging but still wasteful practice, as it destroys the potential value of recycled waste.

By contrast, a quarter of waste is recycled, and 15% is composted. However, these figures hide great regional variations, and disputes about the veracity of figures provided from some southern and eastern European states. The price put on a tonne of waste can vary from €14 per tonne to €200 per tonne, the conference was told.

Simon Webb, the government relations manager for consumer-products company Procter and Gamble, said that regulations had to ensure all actors adhered to a common set of principles, including: transparency, geographical scope, tendering procedures, and materials covered.

Cherry picking

“Cherry picking or a limited [regulatory] scope undermine the whole system and lead to a race to the bottom so minimum requirements and enforcement of EPR are needed,” he told the audience of waste management professionals.

A lack of consistency, clarity and enforcement in the current legislation made it difficult for industry to meet its obligations – and for member states to meet their targets, he argued.

“We need minimum requirements,” Webb said. “We need to ensure that they are enforced. There has to be some harmonisation of reporting, and clarity on roles and responsibilities. Industry oversight is very important to control costs and incentivise performance. If we pay, we want to decide the way.”

Korrina Hegarty, environment policy director of the European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED), said that the EU’s Waste and Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive had helped to create a market involving other commercial actors who were not bound by EPR responsibilities.

“The playing field has changed,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy to adapt to this changing market and the effectiveness of some EPR schemes has not been as good as it could be. A lot of waste is escaping and it is not known where it is going, so we strongly advocate the registering and reporting of all waste flows, not just those going to official EPR schemes.”

Future schemes should be flexible enough to accommodate fluctuating commodity prices across the EU, she said.

Batteries directive

The EU’s Batteries Directive sets out a target of a 45% collection rate by 26 September 2016.  But Hans Craen, the secretary-general of the European Portable Battery Association, said that efforts to account for 100% of the batteries market were hampered by the fact that not all electric and electronic products were coming back into the waste stream, due to loopholes and ‘grey zones’   

“The repercussion is that the closer you get to the targets in battery directive, the more difficult it gets,” he said. “The EU has to give clear guidance on where the boundaries are for interpretation as it has an effect on the functioning of takeback systems.”

The EU's 2005 Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste sets a long-term goal for the EU to become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource. 

The bloc's revised Waste Framework Directive, introduced a binding 'waste hierarchy' defining the order of priority for treating waste. The waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, and recovery, with waste disposal only a last resort.

To comply with the directive, EU member states are obliged to draw up specific waste management plans after analysing their current waste management situations.

Countries are also required to establish special waste prevention programmes by the end of 2013, in a drive to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste.

  • By 2014: Commission to revise 2020 recycling targets set in the Waste Framework Directive
  • 26 Sept. 2016: Deadline for 45% collection rate for batteries

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