EU recycling targets workable and worth it

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Jeremy Wates

Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau. [EEB]

There is nothing wise about scrapping a proposal to increase the EU’s recycling targets and delaying the development of a circular economy, writes Jeremy Wates.

Jeremy Wates is Secretary General at the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of 140 environmental NGOs from across Europe.

The announcement by First Vice-President Timmermans of his intention to withdraw the waste package is mired in controversy. If pursued, it is also likely to damage the Commission’s credibility.

Requests by EU Environment Ministers and most MEPs to keep the package have fallen on deaf ears. The Commission has failed to provide any evidence or serious argument that justifies the package’s removal. Meanwhile, the announcement seems to mirror the wishes of the European business federation, BusinessEurope, which wants to gut the package of substance and meaningfulness.

After unsuccessfully attempting to derail an agreement in the autumn between the Council and the Parliament on limiting plastic bag use, Mr Timmermans looks determined to claim his first scalp of environmental legislation. As the Commissioner entrusted with ‘better regulation’, which he has understood to mean less regulation, he has certainly taken on the role with more fervour than his other portfolio of sustainable development.

But targeting the waste package shows poor judgement. Europe can, and should, make better use of its waste and reduce the damage it causes to the environment. If, on top of that, the package can create 180,000 jobs and save €72 billion a year in waste management costs as estimated, then just what is holding the Commission back?

Apart from BusinessEurope, part of the answer may lie in a recent opinion piece published in EURACTIV which claimed that reaching a recycling rate of 70% across the EU was “unattainable”. The authors claimed that it was unachievable in the Netherlands and, consequently, also unreachable in the rest of Europe. This is plain wrong.

Examples abound from across Europe that reaching a 70% recycling rate is not only feasible, it is already within reach today, not to mention in 15 years’ time as proposed in the package. Data from the European Environment Agency in 2010 showed that Austria and Germany had already achieved a recycling level above 60%, that Belgium was at 58% and the Netherlands at 50%. The region of Flanders has in fact already achieved a 70% rate when rolling re-use, recycling and composting rates together.

In contrast, the Dutch example is a classic case of technology lock-in. The Netherlands now has an overcapacity of incineration plants, which makes incineration costs low there. These plants are also heavily reliant on waste imports from other countries, including the UK, to obtain a return on investment which can take decades to happen. Essentially, there is little incentive to favour higher recycling at the moment. But it is disingenuous to suggest that this situation is replicated in every EU member state.

The authors of the opinion piece also claimed that the benefits of a 70% recycling target were lower than the costs associated with collection. A look at the Commission’s impact assessment suggests otherwise. Recycling being too expensive is a myth which must be cast aside. Most studies today show that recycling is economically far more advantageous than building and maintaining incinerators.

In recent years, in Northern Italy, the economic benefits of treatment through separate waste collection, particularly of biowaste, more than offset the increase in collection costs. When making cost-benefit analyses, one has to take the overall, external costs into account and not focus on mere collection costs.

What is more, recycling leads to lower CO2 emissions and creates far more jobs and economic opportunities than incineration. If Europe is resource-poor, it should be finding ways to recover the materials contained in everyday products, not sending them to the closest incinerator and trying to buy ever more expensive virgin materials to replace them.

By better designing products, meaning that is easier to repair and recycle them and that they contain fewer toxic substances, recycling will become even easier and cheaper. We all know how quickly products on the market change. The products to be treated in 2030 will look different to the ones we treat today, particularly if we set higher design requirements for them in the coming years.

It is waste, not recycling, that is expensive. Europe’s long-term objective should be to create a circular economy, where the old, linear model of ‘make-use-dispose’ is replaced with a new, circular approach where we repair, re-use and better design our products, so as to minimise the amount of waste we create.

However, Mr Timmermans’ attempt to turn the need for more action on product design into an argument for withdrawing the waste targets makes no sense whatsoever. If a new package is to be proposed within the year, it is unlikely to contain new legislative proposals because these require comprehensive and lengthy impact assessments for which there is no time.

At the very best, a ‘withdraw and retable’ exercise will lead us back to square one exactly a year from now and the Commission’s credibility as a proponent of ‘better regulation’ will have been further eroded.