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EU waste shipment revisions fall short by neglecting key distinctions

Due to the sheer size of its population and the advanced state of its development, the EU is a major producer of waste, particularly plastics and metals. Despite commanding a reputation as one of the most environmentally-friendly and forward-thinking forces in the world, the bloc still exports a significant proportion of its waste abroad for recycling, often to countries which do not have the resources, infrastructure, or enforcement systems in place to handle it appropriately. As a result, the EU is often accused of effectively exporting its own waste problem overseas.

Policymakers in Brussels are aware of the inadequacy of existing legislation and are in the process of revising the Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR), a key policy governing how the EU treats waste. As well as taking full ownership of its environmental responsibilities, a comprehensive approach to the new WSR could allow the EU to recoup and reuse much-needed resources contained in this waste material, thereby enhancing its strategic independence in relation to certain raw materials – and all while reinforcing the principles of a circular economy.

But while the intentions of the WSR revision process might be on the money, the current proposals miss their mark by fudging key distinctions in the waste hierarchy, adding up to a missed opportunity for the future of the bloc.

Exporting obligations

At first glance, it may seem as though the EU is on top of its waste management issue. Over 90% of waste generated within the bloc is treated inside its country of origin, while Brussels has already banned the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and is considering doing the same with scrap metal in the near future. However, a closer look reveals that the waste management battle is far from won. Germany, for example, was recently named as the top recycler on the planet by the World Economic Forum, but still exports around one million tons of plastic waste per annum – the most of any EU member.

Even those countries who are the biggest importers of such waste (like the Netherlands) are often just stopping off-points for refuse that is eventually sent to Vietnam, Malaysia, or Thailand, where recycling capacities are simply insufficient to deal with the mountains of waste dumped on their shores. Inevitably, much of the shipments originally designated for recycling end up being incinerated or abandoned to landfill, with their carbon footprints simply displaced from one part of the world to another.

Reusing over recycling

A lot would be gained if the EU were to adequately enforce the oft-touted waste hierarchy in its WSR reforms. In one stroke, this would prioritize reuse over recycling and radically reduce the production of waste in the first place. Indeed, products that can be reused aren’t “waste” at all – a major conceptual distinction from recycling which still produces tons of waste. Reusing is undoubtedly the most favorable option, since it extends usage of resources and reduces dependence on foreign suppliers, as well as enhancing the environmental profile of the product in question.

Reuse was once the norm prior to the advent of single-use packaging and products – and it could be again. One recent study estimated that at least 20% of plastics in packaging could be replaced by reusable systems immediately, and reuse is already common in certain industries. Beer bottles have been a reusable commodity for decades, while in Japan, reusable fillers comprise up to 98% of the market for one leading brand of detergent.

The potential is even more apparent in business to business (B2B) transactions, especially in the industrial sector. Steel and plastic drums, for example, can be easily and effectively decontaminated and repurposed for storing and transporting a wide variety of commodities, from food and drink to hazardous chemicals. Broken drums can be repaired and reconditioned, making their shelf life almost infinite when handled appropriately.

Conflating issues

Unfortunately, the failure to distinguish between reuse and recycling means that companies aren’t being adequately incentivized to feed these sorts of used containers back into the supply chain, which results in them instead being sold off as scrap or dumped in landfills. Worse, the WSR’s classification of “reuse” as waste is also a deadly mistake for another reason. Many EU countries are already treating industrial packaging in an open loop reuse system, yet the WSR requires them to have different licenses as the packaging is legally considered waste. The extra red tape and lengthy bureaucratic procedures this imposes on the industry is slowly choking the sector out of business, obstructing the path to a more sustainable economy.

The current WSR proposals are sadly missing the point on reuse. Rather than highlighting how conducive reuse is to a circular economy, the draft conflates reusing with recycling and actually appears to prioritize the latter. Furthermore, it doesn’t make the distinctions between either of those options and other forms of recovery – such as incineration – as clear as is required.

By unwittingly implying that incineration is a preferable method of waste management in certain scenarios (exactly one of the key issues with the original text from 2006), the WSR misses out on potentially huge financial and carbon savings. Even where individual countries are going above and beyond what is expected of them in the (deficient) WSR text, a lack of harmonization in policy is damaging overall outcomes. Without standardized definitions and protocols in place, for example, some nations consider reusable industrial packaging (like the aforementioned drums) as disposable waste instead.

More clarity is crucial

Clearing up such issues and inconsistencies is exactly what the WSR revision should be doing. However, the lack of clarity in the wording of key segments of the document, alongside the failure to properly distinguish between recycling and reusing (and between consumer and industrial packaging) is a major downfall.

It falls to the drafters of the document to fine-tune their phraseology so that there can be no confusion about which forms of waste management better serve the environmental ambitions and the economic stability of the EU. The ecological and fiscal future of Europe – and the countries being asked to handle Europe’s waste – depends on it.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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