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?