Why restricting landfilling must be at the heart of the Circular Economy

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

A landfill site in the UK. [James/Flickr]

In early December, the European Commission is due to put forward a revised Circular Economy package. This package opens up new opportunities which will help Europe on its path towards a sustainable future, writes Karl Foerster. 

Karl Foerster is the executive director of PlasticsEurope.

Avoiding the landfilling of waste is essential for Europe to be able to tackle one of the biggest challenges of our time: to become truly resource efficient. Last year, roughly eight million tonnes of plastics waste ended up in landfill in Europe. Plastics are too valuable to be simply thrown away.

The fact that many members states still rely on landfilling means we are wasting precious resources that could otherwise be reused, recycled or could generate energy. This is why, in 2012, the European plastics industry launched the ‘Zero Plastics to Landfill’ initiative, which aims at reducing the amount of post-consumer plastic waste going to landfill to zero by 2025.

National landfill restrictions implemented throughout the last decade have helped decrease the amount of post-consumer plastics waste being landfilled in Europe by 38%. As a result, post-consumer plastics recycling has risen by as much as 64% and energy recovery has increased by 46%. Based on the experience of those countries, we should acknowledge that only a binding and enforced restriction provides the legal certainty required for investment in the necessary waste infrastructure. In this regard, I would encourage administrators to drive recyclable and other recoverable material out of landfill by 2025.

A landfill ban by 2025, not just on recyclable, but on all other recoverable post-consumer waste, would unleash the full potential of plastics waste as a resource and have a significant and positive impact on growth, energy savings and job creation in Europe. In fact, it would act as a powerful stimulus for recycling, leading to an additional annual amount of over 5 million tonnes of plastics recycling, while saving a further 7 million tonnes in CO2 emissions. The remaining waste which cannot be sustainably recycled together with other associated recoverable waste could also be used for other industries. For instance, eight million tonnes of plastics waste would enable the cement industry to double the speed at which it is reducing its oil imports. The use of plastics as a resource could also create around 300,000 additional jobs related to waste sorting, plastics recycling and energy recovery plants.

While it is essential to develop recycling, it is also important not to discourage energy recovery as an alternative to landfilling. In fact, recycling is not always the most eco-efficient waste management option. Today’s recycling technology is still in its infancy and works well for products which are easy to collect and sort, such as PET and HDPE bottles (e.g. water bottles and milk bottles). A recent study has shown that the optimum level for plastic packaging recycling using currently available technology lies between 35% and 50%, depending on the country’s collection, sorting and recycling capacities. Using plastics waste, which cannot be sustainably recycled as a secondary energy source, expands the diversity of the EU’s energy supply, improves energy security, and helps mitigate climate change.

Even at the end of their lifecycle, plastics are too valuable to be thrown away. We need to acknowledge and preserve the resources we have. In fact, I believe that the only way we can truly move towards a resource-efficient society is through a landfill ban on recyclable and recoverable waste. Only by doing so will our economy start to genuinely resemble a circle in which no resources are lost. 

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