Due to the sheer size of its population and advanced state of development, the EU is a major producer of waste, especially plastics and metals. Despite having a reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly and forward-thinking forces in the world, the bloc still exports a significant portion of its waste overseas for recycling, often to countries that do not have the resources, infrastructure or enforcement systems. in place to manage it appropriately. As a result, the EU is often accused of effectively exporting its own waste problem abroad.
Policymakers in Brussels are aware of the insufficiency of existing legislation and are revising the Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR), a key policy governing how the EU deals with waste. In addition to taking full ownership of its environmental responsibilities, a comprehensive approach to the new WSR could enable the EU to recover and reuse the much-needed resources contained in this waste, thereby strengthening its strategic independence from certain raw materials. – and of all while reinforcing the principles of a circular economy.
But while the intentions of the WSR review process may be on the money, the current proposals miss the mark by rigging key distinctions in the waste hierarchy, which is a missed opportunity for the future of the bloc.
At first glance, it may seem that the EU has its waste management problem under control. More than 90% of the waste generated within the bloc is treated in its country of origin, while Brussels has already banned the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and plans to do the same with scrap metal in the near future. However, a closer look reveals that the waste management battle is far from won. Germany, for example, was recently named the world’s top recycler by the World Economic Forum, but still exports around one million tonnes of plastic waste a year – the most of any EU member.
Even countries that are the biggest importers of this waste (such as the Netherlands) are often just stopping points for waste that is ultimately sent to Vietnam, Malaysia or Thailand, where recycling capacities are simply insufficient to deal with the mountains of waste. thrown on their ribs. Inevitably, a large proportion of shipments originally destined for recycling end up being incinerated or landfilled, their carbon footprints simply being moved from one part of the world to another.
Reuse rather than recycle
There would be much to be gained if the EU properly enforced the oft-vaunted waste hierarchy in its WSR reforms. In one fell swoop, this would prioritize reuse over recycling and drastically reduce waste generation in the first place. Indeed, products that can be reused are not “waste” at all – a major conceptual distinction from recycling which still produces tons of waste. Reuse is undoubtedly the most favorable option, as it prolongs the use of resources and reduces dependence on foreign suppliers, while improving the environmental profile of the product in question.
Reuse was once the norm before the advent of single-use packaging and products – and it could be again. A recent study estimated that at least 20% of plastics in packaging could be replaced immediately with reusable systems, and reuse is already common in some industries. Beer bottles have been a reusable product for decades, while in Japan reusable fillers account for up to 98% of the market for a leading detergent brand.
The potential is even more evident in business-to-business (B2B) transactions, particularly in the industrial sector. Steel and plastic drums, for example, can be easily and efficiently decontaminated and reused for the storage and transport of a wide variety of products, from food and beverages to hazardous chemicals. Broken kegs can be repaired and reconditioned, making their shelf life nearly infinite when handled appropriately.
Confusion of problems
Unfortunately, the inability to distinguish between reuse and recycling means there is not enough incentive for companies to put these types of used containers back into the supply chain, resulting in them being sold as scrap or dumped in landfills. Worse still, the WSR’s classification of “reuse” as waste is also a deadly mistake for another reason. Many EU countries already treat industrial packaging in an open-loop reuse system, but the WSR requires them to have different licenses because the packaging is legally considered waste. The extra bureaucracy and lengthy bureaucratic procedures this imposes on the industry are slowly suffocating the bankrupt sector, clogging the path to a more sustainable economy.
The current WSR proposals unfortunately miss the point on reuse. Rather than highlighting how conducive reuse is to a circular economy, the project confuses reuse with recycling and actually seems to prioritize the latter. Moreover, it does not make the distinctions between either of these options and other forms of recovery – such as incineration – as clear as it should be.
By unwittingly implying that incineration is a preferable method of waste management in certain scenarios (exactly one of the key issues with the original 2006 text), the WSR is missing out on potentially huge financial and carbon savings. Even when individual countries go beyond what is expected of them in the (deficient) WSR text, a lack of policy harmonization undermines overall results. Without standardized definitions and protocols in place, for example, some countries instead consider reusable industrial packaging (like the aforementioned drums) as disposable waste.
More clarity is crucial
Addressing these issues and inconsistencies is exactly what the WSR review should do. However, the lack of clarity in the wording of key segments of the document, as well as the inability to properly distinguish between recycling and reuse (and between consumer and industrial packaging) is a major drawback.
It is incumbent upon the drafters of the document to refine their phraseology so that there can be no confusion as to which forms of waste management best serve the environmental ambitions and economic stability of the EU. The ecological and fiscal future of Europe – and of the countries called upon to manage European waste – depends on it.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or management of EconoTimes