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EU Waste Shipment Regulation falls short of fixing Europe’s waste export crisis

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The revised Waste Shipment Regulation proposal [1] tabled today by the European Commission is a welcome step forward, but more needs to be done to mitigate the consequences of EU waste exports, warns the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). The text aims to bring EU waste shipment policy more in line with the waste treatment hierarchy and sound environmental waste management, two guiding principles of EU waste policy. However, derogations and insufficient distinction between material recycling and lower forms of recovery risk watering it down, according to Europe’s largest network of environmental NGOs.

The revised text may temporarily divert a bit more waste to OECD countries rather than non-OECD ones, but it will not make it harder to export waste, and it will not ensure that valuable resources remain in the system within the EU. The EEB advocates for a strict ban, which would be easier to enforce, and would create additional pressure to cut waste generation and virgin resource consumption in the EU.

EEB Policy Integration and Circular Economy Director Stéphane Arditi said: “Shipping waste outside the EU is not only an unfair delegation of our duty to manage our own waste and an obstacle to waste prevention. It is also a missed opportunity to turn waste into secondary raw materials, reducing our dependence on imported natural resources and eventually making the EU a secondary raw material exporter.”

Within or outside the EU, exports for waste disposal are prohibited by default, but the text seems to miss a distinction between shipments for reuse and recycling, and shipments for lower forms of recovery, such as incineration [2]. This makes it as easy to export materials to another EU or OECD country for incineration as for reuse or recycling, which is at odds with the waste hierarchy. For enforcement purposes, the proposal also distinguishes between shipments for reuse and shipments of waste, but neglects the fact that products shipped for reuse will at some point reach their end of life and would need to be managed in the receiving country.

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For items such as electronics and possibly textiles and cars in the future, consumers pay so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees to support correct collection, recycling and waste disposal. However, if the fees paid by consumers do not follow the products when they are shipped for reuse, they will unduly remain with producers in the exporting countries, instead of helping receiving countries manage the waste treatment stage.

In 2020, EU exports of waste to non-EU countries reached 32.7 million tonnes, an increase of three quarters (+75%) since 2004. The largest share of this waste was sent to Turkey (13.7 million tonnes), followed by India (2.9 million tonnes), the UK (1.8 million tonnes), and Switzerland (1.6 million tonnes), Norway (1.5 million tonnes), Indonesia and Pakistan (1.4 million tonnes) [3].

The EEB, the Rethink Plastic alliance and Break Free From Plastic have repeatedly urged the Commission to intervene and halt the significant health, environmental and social burden of EU waste, and notably plastics, on receiving countries [4]. Hazardous waste exports mostly remain within the EU: in 2018, 7.0 million tonnes of the hazardous waste exports from EU Member States were shipped to another member state, corresponding to approximately 91% of the total exports [5].

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Over the next 12 to 18 months, the Waste Shipment Regulation proposal will be discussed by the Environment Committee of the European Parliament as well as with member states representatives within the Council, according to the Ordinary Legislative Procedure. The EEB warns that the present loopholes may lead to the proposal to be weakened

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_21_5918 
[2] The factsheet mentions “establishing stricter conditions for shipments for landfilling or incineration, so that they are only authorized in limited and well-justified cases”, but such a  distinction is not clear in the text.
https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/api/files/attachment/870408/Factsheet%20on%20Waste%20shipments.pdf.pdf 
[3] Source: Eurostat
[4] https://meta.eeb.org/2021/09/30/slay-the-plastic-waste-trade-dragon-campaigners-urge-the-eu/

[5] Source: Eurostat

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Environment

Plastic waste and recycling in the EU: Facts and figures

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Nearly a third of plastic waste in Europe is recycled. Find out more facts and figures on plastic waste and its recycling in the EU with the infographic below, Society.

Infographic about plastic waste and recycling in Europe
Find out the facts about plastic waste and recycling in the EU  

The production of plastic has grown exponentially in just a few decades - from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 359 million tonnes in 2018 worldwide – and with it the amount of plastic waste. After a sharp drop in production in the first half of 2020 due to the  COVID-19 pandemic, production recovered again in the second half of the year.

The EU is already taking measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste, but what happens to the waste that is generated despite all efforts? And how can plastic recycling rates be increased?

Plastic waste treatment in Europe

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In Europe, energy recovery is the most used way to dispose of plastic waste, followed by recycling. Some 25% of all the generated plastic waste is landfilled.

Half of the plastic collected for recycling is exported to be treated in countries outside the EU. Reasons for export include the lack of capacity, technology or financial resources to treat the waste locally.

Previously, a significant share of the exported plastic waste was shipped to China, but recent restrictions on imports of plastic waste in China is likely to further decrease EU exports. This poses the risk of increased incineration and landfilling of plastic waste in Europe. Meanwhile, the EU is trying to find circular and climate-friendly ways of managing its plastic waste.

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The low share of plastic recycling in the EU means significant losses for the economy as well as for the environment. It is estimated that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle.

Globally, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic pumped more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2019. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes, a part of which could be avoided through better recycling.

Read more about waste management in the EU.

Problems with plastic recycling

The main issues complicating plastic recycling are the quality and price of the recycled product, compared with their unrecycled counterpart. Plastic processors require large quantities of recycled plastic, manufactured to strictly controlled specifications and at a competitive price.

However, since plastics are easily customised to the needs - functional or esthetic - of each manufacturer, the diversity of the raw material complicates the recycling process, making it costly and affecting the quality  of the end product. As a consequence, the demand for recycled plastics is growing rapidly, though in 2018 it accounted for only 6% of plastics demand in Europe.

Find out more about EU plans to reach a circular economy by 2050, including plastic reduction.

EU solutions to increase recycling rates

In May 2018, the European Commission put forward a proposal to address the issue of plastic marine litter. It includes an EU ban on the production of the top 10 single-use plastics that are found on European beaches from 3 July 2021.

As part of the Green Deal, 55% of plastic packaging waste should be recycled by 2030. This would imply better design for recyclability, but MEPs believe measures to stimulate the market for recycled plastic are also needed.

These measures could include:

  • Creating quality standards for secondary plastics
  • Encouraging certification in order to increase the trust of both industry and consumers
  • Introducing mandatory rules on minimum recycled content in certain products
  • Encouraging EU countries to consider reducing VAT on recycled products


The European Parliament also backed the restriction of light-weight plastic bags in the EU in 2015.

In addition MEPs called on the Commission to take action against micro plastics.

Read more about the EU strategy to reduce plastic waste.

Find out more 

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Environment

EU Cohesion policy: €84 million for urban wastewater treatment plant in Marathon, Greece

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The Commission has approved an investment of €84 million from the Cohesion Fund for the construction of a new infrastructure for sewage collection and treatment in Marathon, in the Attica region of Greece. This new system will enhance public health from the disposal of untreated, or insufficiently treated, wastewater. Cohesion and Reforms Commissioner Elisa Ferreira (pictured) said: “I am glad to approve this project as it will offer health and environmental benefits to locals and tourists alike. This is a clear example of EU's support to infrastructure that contributes to the compliance of the EU environmental acquis and meets the goals of the Green Deal.”

Approximately 188 km of sewerage pipes will be laid in the agglomerations of Nea Makri and Marathon as well as the construction of 15 pumping stations and the Marathon wastewater treatment plant with a capacity to serve the equivalent of a population of 110,000. An electricity distribution infrastructure and an automated control system for the plant will also be built. Moreover, the sludge produced will be treated as a valuable resource and utilised for biogas production. The project will therefore also contribute to climate change mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. More details on EU-funded investments in Greece are available on the Open Data Platform.

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Cigarettes

The French lead by example on #cigarette recycling

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Having toughened its stance at home, France is leading the way on proposals to curb the adverse environmental impacts of the tobacco industry EU-wide, placing producers at the centre of the European debate.

 

Last week, Younous Omarjee, a French MEP from La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party, published a report containing 10 suggestions aimed at reducing the influence of the tobacco lobby in the EU. The report, entitled ‘The Black Book of the tobacco industry in Europe’, exposes the influence that major tobacco exert over the EU Commission and suggests that the industry’s lobby has sheltered it from its responsibilities as a polluter of the environment.

 

Omarjee’s proposals come on the back of a toughening of the French government’s stance on the matter domestically – in April, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced plans to force the tobacco industry to participate in the country-wide clean-up of cigarette butts. But as the report infers, the power and influence of big tobacco at the EU Commission has served to prevent common sense, national initiatives of this type from seeing the light of day at the wider European level.

 

With European Parliament elections on the horizon and the issue gaining purchase at national level, the proposals coming out of France are giving MEPs, anti-tobacco associations such as such as the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP) or the European Network for Smoking Prevention (ENSP) the impetus needed to place tobacco pollution at the centre of EU environmental policy. Doing so would provide a check on the power of lobbies at the Commission and signal a crucial victory over corporate sway for European environmentalism.

 

Tobacco figures are frightening: every year, over 6,000 billion cigarettes are smoked across the world. And a great proportion of cigarette butts are cast, in one fashion or another, into the natural environment. Butts are not just visual pollution – eyesores that soil our streets, our parks, our rivers, our forests, our mountains, and our beaches. Each butt constitutes a mini viral bomb containing some 4,000 chemicals and takes around 12 years to degrade and disappear. A single butt can pollute 500 litres of water or 1m3 of snow. For this reason, local and national public officials have strived in past decades to identify solutions for their disposal.

 

A potential solution seen in other industries is the ‘polluter-payer principle’, which aims to make companies accountable for their social responsibilities. It does so by compelling them to either find alternative solutions or pay fines for polluting the environment in which they exist. Across industries, money has often proven the most important and effective lever for encouraging corporate social responsibility.

 

In June, to this end, France’s Prime Minister Philippe instructed Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, to convene tobacco manufacturers to discuss their participation in the recycling of cigarette butts. Poirson had previously voiced strong criticism of the industry: “it is intolerable that taxpayers pay to rid our environment of the waste from their [tobacco manufacturers] products”.

The counterargument is a tough one to make: French taxpayers, a majority of whom are non-smokers, should pay for the collection, processing and disposal of cigarette butts. And if this defence is difficult to make in France, the same surely applies to German, Greek, Swedish or Romanian taxpayers. To the extent that this is true, it would be logical for the European Commission to recommend proposals like that of Philippe’s to the European Parliament for discussion and implementation at the EU level. Its failure to do so, Omarjee’s report suggests, has more than a little to do with the Commission’s proximity to the tobacco lobby.

 

In spite of the Commission’s silence, Romanian MEP Cristian Busoi has involved a group of public health NGOs in discussions of a new general reform of tobacco policy at EU level through the proposal of a new tobacco products directive. The issue of pollution from cigarette butts figures among seven central topics requiring policy modernisation.

 

With European Parliament elections looming, MEPs, anti-smoking associations and environmental associations might do worse than to propose further initiatives of this sort going into the election cycle. In 2016, the Parliament successfully blocked the renewal of a Cooperation Agreement between the Commission and Philip Morris International. As an example of both the parliament’s clout and legitimacy, this victory must be capitalised upon – as the sovereign representative of national parliaments at the European level, the parliament must serve as the principal check and balance to the Commission’s power – and to that of its lobbies.

 

It is becoming clear that at a national level, the tobacco industry will soon have to reckon with the issue of pollution from its products. This is particularly true in France, where after hikes in cigarette prices and taxes paid by tobacco vendors, the Association For a New Anti-Tobacco Policy has recently proposed an “environmental contribution to cigarette butts at the sole expense of the manufacturers of tobacco”. Asking the tobacco companies to pay 0.15 cents per cigarette or 3 cents per packet sold would bring in €75 million each year. This is money that could be directly spent on recycling cigarette butts.

 

The debate has given rise to complementary initiatives across the country, such as in the city of Strasbourg – the official seat of the European Parliament – where smoking has recently been banned in city parks for this reason. Even the private sector wants a piece of the actions: MéGo, a company founded last year by a businessman in Brittany, collects and recycles cigarette butts from businesses up and down the country.

 

After the adoption of plain packaging and the decision to progressively bring cigarette prices prices up to €10 in 2020 under the impetus of President Emmanuel Macron, France is preparing to implement severe measures to force tobacco companies to shoulder the cost of cleaning up the environment. Let’s hope that the example is followed at European level, and possibly beyond, should the EU come to be considered as an example in this regard.

 

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