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Quality over quantity key to EU’s circular economy

Ensuring high-quality recyclates is more important to achieving a circular economy (CE) than hitting quantative targets, a top European Commission official has said.

The original CE proposals, dropped late last year, included an umbrella target of 70% recycling for EU households by 2030.

Karl Falkenberg

But Karl Falkenberg, director-general for environment at the European Commission, left, speaking at a live panel debate organised by broadcaster Vieuws, said there would be a focus on improving measurability during preliminary discussions this week for the next package.

In March, MRW exclusively reported earlier comments from Falkenberg that targets such as 70% were impracticable when fewer than half of EU member states were considered unlikely to reach the current target of 50% recycling by 2020. He also suggested there would be a focus on specific materials, such a ban on food waste to landfill.

He told Vieuws: “We should not fool ourselves with large numbers of recycling effort when either the figures are plainly wrong, because they include pre-sorting materials, or because we are effectively downcycling.

“It’s more important to get to these high-quality recyclates than to get simply to a big number. We need to have realistic targets and therefore measuring the success of our recycling efforts in a credible way is very important.

“A key element is going to continue to have separate collection systems but also eco-design. If you want to be able to recycle and reuse the recyclates for new products, you need to know what pollutants are in the waste that you collect.”

The Commission’s new proposals are scheduled to be finalised at a stakeholder consultation before the summer break, following initial discussions. The revised CE package is due for release in the autumn.

Falkenberg also said discussions could include redefining when materials are considered recycled. He said one question could be: “When have wastes been sufficiently separated to be considered a new resource?”

The discussion also included Andy Doran, senior manager of Novelis Europe, who said he was encouraged by Falkenberg’s comments, particularly with relation to removing recycling targets that give an untrue impression of how much recycled material is actually being sorted.

He said: “We measure inconsistently and largely what gets collected, not what gets subsequently sorted. We are kidding ourselves today and in 2020-25 if the consumer finds out that some of this is not ending up where it should.

“Targets do underpin the movement of industry but also they’re a totem for the consumer.”

A white paper from the Commission’s discussions is expected to be produced in the next month, ahead of stakeholder discussions.

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