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EU ‘waste-based fossil fuels’ proposal faces growing opposition

Waste plastic materials that cannot be recycled because they contain too many ‘impurities’ could be used as transport fuel if an EU proposal is set in law – but the motion has drawn criticism from numerous environmental campaign groups, claiming it sets a dangerous precedent.

In its proposal for a revised Renewable Energy Directive – the mechanism setting out policy for the production and promotion of energy from renewables in the EU – the European Commission listed ‘waste-based fossil fuels’ among the materials that can be used for or converted into energy, such as renewable electricity or transport fuels.

In the original proposal, the Commission defined waste-based fossil fuels as ‘liquid and gaseous fuels produced from waste streams of non-renewable origin, including waste processing gases and exhaust gases.’ However, an amendment introduced by the European Parliament in January added waste ‘produced from solid waste streams’ to the definition – meaning, in essence, plastics.

The addition has already received support from four member states – the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic – and gained further momentum following China’s decision to ban all imports of plastics and other recycled waste from Europe and other countries.

EU ‘waste-based fossil fuels’ proposal faces growing opposition

‘Deep concern’ regarding proposal

However, despite support from member states, major European-level organisations such as Zero Waste Europe and Friends of the Earth Europe have voiced objections to the proposal, alongside national groups in Ireland, Estonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, the UK and Portugal.

The groups have written a joint letter expressing ‘deep concern’ about the proposal, addressed to European Commissioner for the Environment Miguel Arias Cañete, Bulgarian Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova and José Blanco López MEP. The letter argues that using non-recyclable plastics to create transport fuel would be ‘equivalent to the use of fossil sources’, therefore creating confusion around European environmental and circular economy policy.

The letter states: ‘The Renewable Energy Directive was developed to promote the use of energy from renewable sources in the EU, in order to fight climate change and encourage the shift to a low-carbon economy. Fuel production from non-renewable solid waste such as plastics is equivalent to use of fossil sources, and therefore the opposite of renewable energy. This inclusion, if adopted, risks creating confusion amongst investors and other stakeholders, undermining public trust in our regulatory framework for climate and energy.

‘We therefore call for integrity in renewable energy definitions and for an explicit exclusion of non-renewable solid waste from the definition of the Recycled Carbon Fuels.’

Janek Vahk, a campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, commented: “An important element in moving to a circular economy is to make plastics easier to recycle. If plastics that are currently difficult to recycle are turned into fuel, the incentive to redesign is lost. Instead there will be a lock-in into an inferior technology that produces energy from fossil fuels.”

Undermining current EU plastics plans

This proposal comes at a time when public consciousness of plastic pollution is higher than it has ever been, in large part due to David Attenborough’s hugely influential BBC series Blue Planet II and the widely-shared estimates that 8-12 million tonnes of plastic enter the marine environment every year. As illustrated by Vank above, there are concerns that – if adopted – the proposed changes could significantly undermine the perceived urgency of current and proposed plastic policies.

Progress has been made in the UK; in January this year, Theresa May announced the Government's long-term 25 Year Environment Plan, which centred on the reduction of plastic waste, calling it “one of the great environmental scourges of our time.”

Also in January, European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans revealed the first ever Europe-wide plastics strategy, emphasising the importance of building secondary markets for recycled plastics in order to create a truly circular economy in Europe. The strategy – ‘A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy’ – forms part of the wider Circular Economy Package, the set of laws and actions designed to guarantee a more resource-efficient future in Europe.

Each month has brought further progress, with Timmermans stating in February that the EU would legislate on single-use plastics before the summer, while in March Europe’s Environment Ministers reached agreement on the content of the strategy at a meeting of the Environment Council.

At a time of such momentum, this latest news could potentially have significant repercussions. Ambassadors from the 28 EU Member States met on Tuesday (8 May) to discuss the amended renewable energy directive, though any conclusions remain to be seen.

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