What goes around comes around: Recycling and climate change

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Recycling has become a central part of the EU's climate change strategy by helping the bloc to tackle the nearly three billion tonnes of waste produced by Europe annually, much of which enters the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and methane emissions from landfill sites and incineration plants.

Recycling is a crucial tool in the battle against climate change, because it avoids greenhouse gas emissions both directly via landfills and indirectly by cutting industrial production processes.

More than 2.9 billion tonnes of waste was generated across the EU in 2006, or about six tonnes per person, according to Eurostat figures. When disposed of in landfill dumps and incineration plants, such waste will produce heavy emissions of methane and CO2, both of which are powerful greenhouse gases.

On the other hand, when recycled, the energy saved by not producing new plastics, paper, glass etc., coupled with the methane emissions avoided by not dumping the old materials in landfill sites, can massively cut planet-baking pollution.

A 2008 study by the German Institute for Environmental Strategies (Ökopol) found that with a 50% recycling rate for municipal waste by 2020, more than 89 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be cut – the equivalent of taking 31 million cars off the road. The present recycling rate is around 37% but the EU sees the 50% target as achievable, if all existing legislation is implemented. 

Along with more environmentally-friendly waste disposal, the European Commission believes that recycling could help meet between 19-31% of the EU's emissions reductions targets for 2020.

The bloc's long-term vision, as set out in the 2005 Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste, is to transform Europe into a recycling society in which a "circular economy" utilises waste as a resource – and reduces Europe's dependence on imports in the process.

The strategy included a common measuring standard for recycling, and the promotion of recycling with instruments like landfill taxes, individual producer responsibility, tradable certificates, fines and incentives.

This thinking was developed in the Waste Framework Directive the following year and a revision in 2008, which created a five-tier hierarchy of waste disposal. Prevention is at the top, recycling in second place and landfill disposal is a last resort (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). Binding recycling and waste prevention standards were also set for member states.

By all accounts, recycling has increased as a result, and now makes up a greater proportion of treated waste than incineration.

But patchy implementation in the EU's 27 member states has led authorities, including the Scottish government, to suggest that a recycling plateau has been reached, and additional measures will be needed to further improve recycling rates. The EU's WEEE Directive, for instance, which is currently being recast, forces member states to collect 85% of all electrical waste – and recycle 50-70% of it – by 2016 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

Recycling was also made one of the three pillars of this year's Raw Materials Initiative, partly to address critical raw material shortages. Rates of rare material recycling currently vary from zero to 35%.

Do carbon markets provide enough incentives to recycle?

The EU's cap-and-trade scheme for carbon dioxide, which limits emissions from heavy industry, is intended to drive the shift towards a low-carbon economy by encouraging leaner industrial processes relying on recovery and recycling.

The EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) rewards companies that use less energy and cut CO2 by allowing them to reap profits from selling their unused emissions credits to more polluting firms.

"When a steel factory is producing steel and using scrap metal, it will use less energy and emit less CO2 so indirectly, incentives [to recycle] exist," an EU official explains.

But indirect savings such as the CO2 saved during the extraction, transport and processing phases for raw materials are more difficult to measure. "Something should be done to promote recycling because it avoids greenhouse gas emissions [...] but also because when you recycle material you avoid extraction and processing of this raw material, and so you avoid a lot of indirect emissions," the official explained.

For this reason, the European Commission suggested in a January 2011 report to incentivise indirect CO2 savings with better economic instruments for recycling.

As a result, more could be done to support recycling under the ETS. "We’re analysing now whether these incentives are enough to promote recycling and whether these kinds of incentives should be better awarded," the EU official told EURACTIV, adding: "The studies and the reflection are starting now."

More generally, environmentalists have pointed out that incineration has been incentivised over recycling in some industrial sectors because it is more easily accounted for in the measurements used for the EU's 2020 climate change targets.

Patchy implementation of EU recycling laws

Around 40% of waste in Europe is covered by minimum EU recycling standards.

But implementation of existing EU law has been patchy and the European Commission has warned it could start infringement proceedings against member states following a 2014 review if the situation does not improve.

For now, waste recycling rates vary from just a few percentage points in some Eastern European countries up to as much as 70% in others. Countries such as Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are performing well above the EU's minimum standards, but most member states are not.

Commission officials say that the success or failure of recycling initiatives depends on economic incentives. For example, Germany and Austria have banned landfill for some categories of waste disposal, while Belgium and the Netherlands have introduced high landfill taxes.

Supporters of stronger enforcement and regulation argue that it provides clarity, predictability and cost-effectiveness for businesses. In their absence, the monitoring and verification of standards, data investigations and compliance measures can all take up precious time and resources of governments and local authorities.

But opponents say this can also lead to duplications of enforcement activity, confused chains of command and bureaucratisation. Industry groups often support some selective binding measures, but are more reluctant when it comes to bearing the costs.

Critical raw materials

Mitigating climate change is not the only motive behind the EU's recycling drive. Awareness is also increasing of the necessity to recycle precious metals, such as rare earths, that are used by the high-tech industry.

Because precious materials are often only used in very small quantities in products as diverse as mobile phones, electric car batteries and computers, recycling technology will have to evolve to the point at which it can capture them. Manufacturers will also have to address design issues with their products so that the materials can be more easily extracted and recycled. 

Rare earths and critical materials have only recently been understood as a problem of scarcity and so the European Commission believes that raising public awareness is a crucial first step.

"A mobile phone contains gold, platinum, palladium and copper, all resources that we have too little of in Europe," said Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik when dropping his mobile phone off at a recycling plant in Belgium. "A tonne of these handsets would contain about 280 grams of gold, 140 grams of platinum and palladium and 140 pounds of copper."

Because of this, the Commission wants to open a debate on product design requirements for reasons of energy efficiency as much as recycling.

Increasing recycling collection points

The consensus is that there are too few collection points in Europe to recover scrap. Many member states do not yet have networks wide enough to create the economies of scale and volume that the recycling industry needs.

Urban zones are generally better served by waste collection services than rural ones which, because of the distances involved, must instead rely on collection points. The overall issue is dealt with at the national level, leaving open the question of who should be responsible for setting up collection points for household waste electrical products, for instance.

Consumer groups often favour better regulations that impel producers to take responsibility for their own-brand products, at the end of their lifecycle. But industry associations tend to support passing the cost of recycling on to the consumer, in tandem with public education programmes about the need for it.

For example, the European Aluminium Association argues that the combinations of different materials used in products and packaging necessitate action across the whole "value chain" of a product. The end of the chain involves consumers driving to out-of-town dumps, where waste materials can be disposed of safely, or reborn in recycled form. But however much education consumers are given, this would entail donations of public time, money and CO2 emissions.

The European Environmental Bureau, an NGO, suggests that retail outlets begin operating collection points for packaging waste and small electrical appliances. This, they say, would create a synergy between municipal obligations and producer responsibilities to set up collection points.

But it would also eat into the revenues of retail outlets, manufacturers or taxpayers, and raise other practical issues, like  the possibility that consumers may seek to dispatch materials purchased from a third country, in which the retailer may not even operate.

Should producers foot recycling bill?

In theory, the individual producer responsibility (IPR) principle addresses the 'who pays?' question in recycling by requiring companies to bear "a degree of responsibility" for the cost of recycling or safely disposing of products at the end of their useful lives. It is intended to encourage greater use of recyclable materials in design innovations and packaging.

But it can be difficult to establish which producer should take responsibility for a product when there are complex supply chains, and when principles of collective responsibility are invoked under certain schemes.

As a result, IPR has so far been confined to specific waste streams such as batteries and small electrical appliances covered under legislation like the Waste from Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) directive.

However, EU member states have implemented the directive in different ways. In the majority of EU member states, local authorities share physical or financial responsibility for the collection of WEEE with distributors and producers. This creates an uneven playing field, and shifts the financial burden of recycling onto the taxpayer.

Consumer groups argue that the public has little say in the initial product designs of companies, and little power to affect the choices that appear on the market. But industries argue that collection costs have little impact on eco-design innovations, and that it is ultimately up to the consumer whether or not to buy a particular product.

For now, producers and consumers will both pay for the costs of recycling, but the €64,000 question remains: how much?

An EU official said more work remains to be done to focus existing EU climate legislation on recycling. Importantly, he said there are differences in recycling between different waste streams which need to be addressed.

"Paper and cardboard are well recycled in the EU," the official pointed out, "then you have packaging and good recycling rates for old vehicles". However, he says there were "leakages" in the system. "Some cars are exported from the EU. Batteries and electric waste have relatively low levels of recycling today, and packaging is in the middle, but there is an enormous difference between member states." This was a more important issue than the differences between different waste streams, in his view.

There was also no common European approach to individual producer responsibility and "this is one item to be discussed in the future," Sponar said. "Would it be useful to have a common European approach to that?" he queried. "The debate should be open because member states have always asked to have their subsidiarity and liberty and it is left to them to deicide. In some you have a full recovery of costs and in others the EU is only asking for a minimum - for WEEE, batteries and packaging." 

Financial incentives to reduce the costs were an effective tool, Sponar added. "We have launched an in-depth study on that now. We'd like to compare how these producer responsibility schemes are put in place in different member states."

"It is clear that we have a counterproductive incentive for burning rather than recycling in some waste streams," said Stéphane Arditi, senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO.

"When you recover energy through incineration plants, it counts for your 2020 renewable energy targets but if, when you save CO2 emissions and energy demands from recycling there is then no way to account for that in the decision-making process, you will promote energy recovery because it will help member states to achieve one of their targets, and obligations," he said.

"That is why we need to have at least a proper accounting of the CO2 and energy that is saved through recycling – so we can make the best choice out of the two," Arditi told EURACTIV.

"At the moment, if you have no recognition of what is saved through recycling then obviously there is a material diversion to energy recovery. In the case of steel, we need to investigate further. In the case of metal it is clear that you can’t burn it to recover energy. So how you credit or acknowledge the CO2 and energy savings from the recycling industry is still a problem," he added.

"The concern of the steel and non-ferrous metals industry is how we can value the CO2 avoidance that our industry enables so there is a clear need for other instruments to evaluate that at the international level. Recycling is not yet taken into consideration for the Clean Development Mechanism – it is about technology transfers to developing countries instead," he said.  

"So if you help a country to capture biogas from landfill at the moment, you'll get more credit than if you help a member state to set up a recycling plant, even though very often the CO2 avoidance and fighting climate change may be more effective," Arditi concluded.

Patrick de Schreynmakers, secretary-general of the European Aluminium Association, said that the EU had not yet full understood all the issues around recycling and was relying on industry to help them out. "Money has to be spent on five steps," he stated. "Data collection, waste collection, sorting, recycling and markets for recycled products. Once these have the desired effect, people will better understand what is at stake and we will have reached the point where legislation and enforcement can significantly improve the situation."

In his view, a common effort was needed by all stakeholders – industry, legislators, the Commission, Parliament, member states, even local authorities – to improve the system. But he believed full individual producer responsibility was a pipe dream. "This is totally impossible," de Schreynmakers said, "because the producer of goods cannot command the behaviour of the user of the product at the end of the products life".

"Legislation should be aimed at consumers," he added, "because most of the products sold on the markets are combinations of different materials – you can have copper and aluminium and plastic in ironing machines. We can all work together but we need the effort of the whole value chain. As long as the consumers are not educated to the recycling, nothing will happen".

Jan Bollen, environmental product manager at Arcelor Mittal, said that while every producer should deal responsibly with the end of their product's natural life cycle, "the cost should be integrated into the product as much as possible. You cannot shift across to other stakeholders in society. In the end, it is always the consumer who pays the bill for whatever scheme".

The European Commission's definition of recycling had, he said, been cast too widely. "There are many forms of recycling and many processes, which are all called recycling now," he complained "even though their environmental value is quite different. If you can use a product again and again, that should be treated as a higher form of recycling than if you can only recycle it once. The main scope of the current waste regulation is too focused on avoiding landfill".

He continued: "When they write their 'end of waste' criteria, they should take a long-term view to encourage recycling, by having better quality criteria. What they've put in place for steel is actually not changing.  We had hoped that they would allow less, or require pure iron to be collected. The purer we can keep the metal, the easier it will be to recycle."

  • Dec. 2005: European Commission unveils Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste, including recast of Waste Framework Directive.
  • Nov. 2008: EU adopts revised Waste Framework Directive.
  • Dec. 2008: Commission presents recast of EU's Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE).
  • Aug. 2010: European Environmental Agency publishes European recycling roadmap.
  • Oct. 2010: Commission waste and recycling study released
  • By 12 Dec. 2010: Deadline for transposing Waste Framework Directive into national legislation. 
  • Feb. 2011: Commission unveils Raw Materials Initiative.
  • 2012: Commission to review Thematic Strategy on waste prevention and recycling to develop best practices in collection and treatment of key waste streams.
  • By 2014: Member states to establish special waste prevention programmes under revised Waste Framework Directive. Commission to review implementation of directive to date.
  • By 2015: Commission to review measures and targets of Waste Framework Directive with view to, if necessary, reinforcing targets and considering setting targets for other waste streams.
  • By 2015: EU member states to set up separate collection schemes for paper, metal, plastic and glass under Waste Framework Directive.
  • By 2020: EU target to increase re-use and recycling of household waste materials (at least paper, metal, plastic and glass) to minimum of overall 50% by weight.
  • By 2020: EU target to increase re-use, recycling and other material recovery of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste to minimum of 70% by weight.

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