Circular Economy: Landfill restriction needed

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

Plastics can be recycled or used for energy generation. [Mr.TinDC/Flickr]

The Circular Economy is the buzzword of the moment in Brussels. But we need to make sure that our focus on “keeping the materials in the circle” does not distract us from our other objectives, argues Karl Foerster.

Karl Foerster is Executive Director of PlasticsEurope.

The EU’s overarching sustainability objective is to turn the bloc into a more resource efficient and competitive economy, and it is important that policymakers understand that the circular economy is but one of the means of reaching such an objective. For one simple example, think of plastics packaging that protects and preserves perishable food for longer, thereby saving natural resources and energy.

One of the fundamental requirements of any truly resource efficient society is to make efficient use of the waste which does occur, so that none of that which can be used as a resource ends up as landfill. Plastics are among the waste streams which can be used as such a resource. This is why the plastics industry is calling for a Europe-wide ban on the landfilling of recoverable post-consumer waste by 2025.

Drawing on the experience of the seven member states that have already ended landfill, the power of phasing out the landfilling of waste which could otherwise be used as a resource is undeniable. Back in 2013, the 7th Environmental Action Programme confirmed that this was the way forward. We now need to make this a reality across the EU.

The European Commission is assessing the scope of a possible landfill restriction in the upcoming legislative proposal. However, from recent discussions we get the impression that the Commission is thinking of limiting the scope of a landfill restriction to “recyclable waste” only, leaving out many plastics (and other materials) which could be used as a resource but cannot be recycled in an eco-efficient way. From our point of view, such a limited approach would ignore the resource efficiency benefits coming from the excluded waste. Non-recyclable plastics, for example, can still be used to produce energy.

Therefore, PlasticsEurope recommends that the revised proposal includes a binding EU landfill restriction for 2025, not just on recyclable, but also on “other recoverable” waste. The concerns that some may have that such a broader scope would promote only energy recovery are not supported by facts: between 2006 and 2012, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste going to landfill was reduced by 26% and, as a result, plastics recycling rose by as much as 40% and energy recovery increased by 27%.

The experience in member states that have already implemented a landfill ban shows that it takes a legislative landfill ban to provide the legal certainty required for future planning and investment in the necessary waste management infrastructure. Also, these member states have shown that a landfill ban can be carried out successfully within less than 10 years, making the 2025 target a realistic one.

Our assessment shows that with such a wide-reaching ban, 60 million tonnes of plastics with a value of around €60 billion would be prevented from ending up in landfill. As a result, an additional annual amount of over 5 million tonnes of plastic waste could be recycled by 2025, an increase of almost 80% in 10 years.

Furthermore, the remaining plastic and other waste which cannot be sustainably recycled could be used to generate over 300 TWh of energy annually – equivalent to 23% of European annual gas imports from Russia. Such waste would therefore help expand the diversity of Europe’s energy supply, improving energy security and cutting fossil fuel use. In total, we assume that diverting all recoverable waste from landfill by 2025 would generate close to 300,000 permanent industrial jobs related to sorting, recycling and energy recovery of waste

If we want to move towards a circular economy, we need to rethink what we know and evaluate all possible alternatives, otherwise we may end up wasting our chance for a truly sustainable Europe.

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