This article is part of our special report Chemicals management: What’s at stake.
European rules that dictate how waste materials can be transported within, into, and out of the EU are due an update. Industrial players insist that a review cannot come quickly enough, as the current laws are an obstacle to green policies like recycling.
The Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) governs the estimated €100 billion-worth of waste that is exported and imported every year. In 2016, some 40 million tonnes was exported from the EU and 13 million tonnes was imported.
Under the WSR, EU countries have to ensure that human and environmental health are both safeguarded through control regimes and procedures. It also aims to promote the economic windfall promised by trading waste materials.
A review by the European Commission was due anyway by the end of 2020 but the principles of the Green Deal – which include a well-functioning circular economy and zero-pollution environment – have prompted a deeper look into the legislation.
An early assessment of the rules identifies where the EU executive sees the main problems and where legislative changes can be made.
“The WSR does not effectively support the transition to a circular economy, as some of its procedures and inconsistent implementation by member states do not facilitate the transboundary movements of waste for recycling within the EU,” the document warns.
It points out that the most notable impact of this is that shipments are often delayed and that enforcement is lacking, “which results in high amounts of illegal shipments of waste occurring within the EU, as well as from the EU to third countries”.
Bottlenecks include paper-based procedures, non-harmonised interpretations of the rules in neighbouring countries – particularly regarding hazardous materials – and lack of universal enforcement across the EU.
Violaine Verougstraete, a chemicals management expert at trade body Eurometaux, told EURACTIV that “currently it takes anything from several weeks to a year for the necessary approvals to allow hazardous shipments to reach the recycling facility”.
She added that a “fast-track option for speeding up shipments involving companies with a proven record of environmental care” should be offered by the Commission.
Adam McCarthy, head of the Cobalt Institute, said that “some countries require recyclers to have different licences, which creates complexity, and there are variations in what waste is considered ‘hazardous’. Clearer alignment and future-proofing is needed.”
Big industrial players are currently unwilling to make significant investments in recycling facilities and supply chains if cross-border permits are too difficult or time-consuming to procure.
“When these unnecessary costs are added to the value chain of secondary raw materials, incentive for recycling and reuse of secondary raw materials is reduced,” the Confederation of Finnish Industries said in its feedback on the Commission’s plans.
Egbert Lox, senior VP at Umicore – a multinational involved in refining, manufacturing and recycling – told EURACTIV that the issue of waste shipment is “an important and critical point that is jeopardising the success of the circular economy”.
“Successful recycling is the result of a chain of activities, and the overall success depends upon the weakest part. That weakest part is clearly the logistics of getting the material-to-be-recycled to our recycling plant,” Lox explained.
Those weaknesses, he added, “come from globally non-harmonised rules and measures with respect to transport” and that “further work on rethinking waste management and hazardous materials transport related rules is needed in the EU and globally”.
According to the Commission’s assessment, the review will aim to “simplify and reduce burdens linked with the WSR’s implementation in general”, so that waste can be recycled or reused more effectively in the EU.
It also says that it will “restrict exports of waste that have harmful environmental and health impacts in third countries or can be treated domestically within the EU”, an objective that the current rules have not managed to achieve.
Tackling illegal waste shipments will also be in focus, although the Commission does not seem likely to completely rewrite the WSR. Instead, it will reportedly take a more “modest approach”, according to sources.
The Commission document mentions “flanking measures with soft law like guidance or informational tools”.
In terms of economic impact, the assessment says that a successfully implemented WSR “could generate economies of scale in the recycling sector, make it more competitive and result in a decrease in prices for recycled materials which are then put back in the economy as secondary raw materials.”
France Capon, head of the European Precious Metals Federation, which represents a sector that is at the forefront of the waste shipment issue, agreed that the regulation must be reviewed but added that the Commission must make sure waste definitions are robust.
“The main concern remains in the definition of hazardous and non-hazardous – the latter not being well defined. This definition issue could trigger a negative impact on recycling potential and goals in the EU,” she told EURACTIV.
Capon added that “this definition is also highly dependent on the concept of “Substance of Concern”, which has been drastically broadened in the new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and which could have a serious impact on the circular economy in general.”
The Commission intends to wrap up work on the WSR update soon and adopt its proposal in the first quarter of 2021. That will trigger discussions among MEPs and member state representatives before trilateral talks can be held at a later date.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]