After one false start and almost three years of intensive discussion, EU negotiators have finally struck a deal on the shape of future waste legislation.
At time of writing, this provisional agreement has yet to be approved by the European Parliament in plenary session, while EU environment ministers are not expected to vote on it until May or June, but these are seen as formalities. Even the UK – which throughout the negotiations has been critical of the proposed higher recycling targets – has said that it will support the deal.
The new legislation sets a clear direction of travel to 2035. Progression towards a recycling target of 65% for a broad definition of municipal waste and a 10% ceiling on landfill of such waste by the same date will clarify the balance between recycling and recovery that member states will need to achieve during that period. There are also higher targets for packaging recycling and new provisions on the way that extended producer responsibility is operated and funded.
But there are question marks about whether the legislation will have the desired effect. The biggest caveat is whether there are, or eventually will be, viable markets for the vastly increased supply of recyclable material implied by the 65% target.
At a time when the average EU28 recycling rate is only 40-45%, the economics of recycling are weak, and the recent issues around exports to China underline this. Without significant action to boost demand for recycled materials – or to prevent waste altogether – the higher EU recycling targets beyond 2020 will lack credibility.
Some very heavy intervention is going to be needed if economically sustainable outlets are to be found for a 50% increase in the supply of recyclable material by 2035. But there are no such game-changing interventions in the circular economy (CE) legislation or the accompanying non-legislative Action Plan.
The Environmental Services Association (ESA) and its European federation Fead pointed this out to senior European Commission officials back in 2015 but were met with blank looks. The Commission at that time was not prepared to take on producers by mandating the use of recycled content or recyclability via eco-design rules, and said that differential VAT rules in favour of secondary raw materials would be too complicated.
The CE action plan includes an Eco-Design Working Plan, but this effectively postpones the revision of EU eco-design laws until after 2020.
Another key component of the action plan, the EU Plastics Strategy, relies on a voluntary approach by calling on brand owners to commit to increasing the content of recycled plastics in their products and exhorting businesses to come forward with voluntary pledges to boost the uptake of recycled plastics – with a threat of possible future regulatory by the EU if sufficient pledges are not forthcoming.
Work on other initiatives in the action plan, such as the interface between product, chemical and waste legislation, and possible EU-wide quality standards for sorted waste and recyclates, is at an early stage. It is not clear how far all of these measures, if they progress, would contribute to increasing the overall demand for secondary materials.
“EU recycling targets remain weight-based because there is no agreement on an alternative metric. But UK ministers point out that this can incentivise quantity over quality.”
Against this background, a lot will depend on the actions taken by individual member states, notably in the field of producer responsibility.
For the UK, leaving the EU may provide an opportunity to set out a more coherent and pragmatic waste and resources policy tailored to our own market conditions. For example, EU recycling targets remain weight-based because there is no agreement on an alternative metric.
But UK ministers are right to point out that this can have unintended consequences, such as incentivising quantity over quality. This could lead to the collection of low-grade materials for which there is no sustainable market. Smarter targets could encourage the collection of good quality secondary materials for which viable markets exist.
Defra has said that the UK will set out its approach to transposition of the CE legislation in its resources and waste strategy, which is due for publication later this year. In the ESA’s view, the strategy will need to set out the UK’s – or at least England’s – recycling ambitions, as well as its plans for residual waste treatment.
Above all, Defra’s strategy will need to plug the hole in the EU CE package by spelling out credible and pragmatic measures for translating its aims and ambitions into reality.
Roy Hathaway is the Europe policy adviser at Environmental Services Association