The conversion of waste into a precious resource must be one of the cornerstones of a resource efficient Europe. The forthcoming review of EU waste management legislation is the perfect opportunity to tackle this problem. However, this will require combining ambitious goals with smart policy tools and strict enforcement of the rules.
The plastics industry presents a clear example of what can be achieved if we can achieve this. The European Commission’s recent Green Paper on plastic waste accurately sets out the challenges facing plastics at the end of their life cycle, while highlighting the enormous potential of plastics to make a positive contribution to the environment and society as a whole.
A big part of the problem is that in most Member States the systems are not able to take advantage of the growing number of end-of-life plastics value propositions. By contrast, more than two-thirds of European countries send more than 50% of their plastic waste to landfills.
In this context, the focus in the Green Paper on the need to divert plastic waste from the landfill is one that we wholeheartedly share as an industry. Plastic waste is a valuable resource and its exploitation is the key to tackling a number of other issues from strengthening the recycling economy to reducing marine litter.
Two years ago, the European plastics industry launched a call for action to achieve zero plastics in landfills by 2020. The experience of the nine EU countries that already recover more than 90% of plastic waste after consumption shows that , while it may be ambitious, this is not an unrealistic goal. The challenge is to put the right economic and political incentives in other Member States.
The revision of the Landfill Directive in 2014 is a crucial opportunity to introduce a landfill ban or increase taxes on the phasing out of all recyclable and high-calorie waste – not just plastic – by end of the decade.
At the same time, banning or phasing out landfills is just one part of the puzzle. We also need to develop clear criteria to determine the most appropriate recovery options for landfill diversion materials.
There are some cases where recycling plastics or other materials simply does not make sense in terms of sustainability – either because they are too complex to separate from other materials without a disproportionate energy investment, or because they are contaminated in some way and are not safe to recycle.
Energy recovery and recycling should be considered complementary rather than competing options. This is evidenced in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden where there is free capacity for energy recovery, but high recycling rates are achieved.
This is why it will be vital to develop overall sustainability criteria when it comes to landfill diversion options. As we have seen in the case of biofuels, it is important to make these criteria clear from the outset when setting environmental targets.
The results of a thorough viability analysis often show the opposite. Plastic carrying bags, which are the subject of specific Commission proposals, are a classic example. In addition to being cost-effective and convenient, many public studies have concluded that, as long as they are reused, plastic bags have a better overall environmental performance than alternatives.
The big problem, as we all know, is garbage. This is why introducing charging in plastic bags and all carrying bags, as a means of raising consumer awareness of their value and discouraging stocks, would be a more viable option than simply banning them.
Identifying the most efficient way to get value from the waste we produce is not an easy challenge. However, with the revision of EU waste legislation, we have the opportunity to revolutionize the use of waste as a resource – instead of just burying it under our feet.