Europe en route to a ‘recycling society’

Recently-published thematic strategy papers from the European Commission (EC) are intended to guide the way towards a ‘recycling society’. Notably, they enshrine an acceptance that the current definition of waste is ‘problematic’ and ‘sets no clear boundaries for when a waste has been adequately treated and should be considered a product’. According to the BIR world recycling body, the strategies handle issues of pivotal importance to the recycling industry and their progress demands close monitoring.

The European Commission (EC) has made a decisive move towards achieving its stated goal of creating a ‘recycling society’ with the publication of two interlinked thematic strategy papers - one on the sustainable use of natural resources and the other on the prevention and recycling of waste. And the good news for the global recycling industry is that these documents clearly acknowledge the importance of recycling, as well as the need for a different approach on two key issues for recyclers: the definition of recycling; and when waste ceases to be waste.

The two strategies are designed to modernise EU waste management practices and to boost the efficient use of natural resources. According to the EC, the natural resources strategy advocates life-cycle thinking to minimise the environmental impacts of resource use and ‘provides the scientific and conceptual foundation upon which the waste strategy rests’.

The latter strategy was adopted by the European Commission on December 21 last year and has its roots in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme. Under development for three years and the focus of a wide consultation exercise, the strategy also proposes a revision of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive which dates back to the 1970s and ‘sets a framework for promoting recycling generally’, according to the Commission. A market-based approach combining EU standards for the recycling market (understood to mean acceptable levels of performance and/or quality) together with national economic instruments that reflect the environmental advantages of recycling in waste management costs ‘will set the scene for recycling to develop further’, it says.

Secondary materials, not waste

As well as seeking to modernise and simplify waste legislation, the strategy aims to improve the recycling market by setting environmental standards that specify the conditions under which certain recycled materials ‘are no longer considered waste but high-quality secondary materials instead’.

EU member states’ use of economic instruments will be promoted to encourage citizens to recycle. The strategy also identifies the following action points: a renewed emphasis on full implementation of existing legislation, as exemplified by the already improved enforcement of the EU’s waste shipment regulations; introduction of life-cycle thinking into waste policy; improvement of knowledge and information; and the development of common reference standards for recycling and recovery.

On this final point, the Commission adds that, in order to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market for recycling, the proposal is to set minimum standards (levels of performance) across the Community for recycling activities and (quality of) recycled materials so as to ensure a high level of says, ‘it does not seem entirely logical that packaging paper (60% of the waste stream) is covered by a recycling target and producer responsibility system, but that other types of paper are not.’ The EC acknowledges that this material focus approach would have to evolve over a number of years ‘so that there can be a smooth transition’.

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