Commentators react to EC’s 70 per cent recycling plan

Following an announcement (2 July) by the European Commission (EC) that it has adopted a 70 per cent recycling and reuse target for member states as a part of a ‘transition to the circular economy’, government departments, industry commentators and third-sector groups have all been offering their opinions on the proposals.

While the response has been largely positive, certain commentators have expressed disappointment with aspects of the plan.

‘A monumental step forward’

Following yesterday’s largely positive initial reactions, further praise has come in for the EC’s ambition.

Referring to the circular economy package as ‘a monumental step forward’, Keep Britain Tidy’s Chief Executive Phil Barton said: “We welcome the proposed targets that will guide Europe towards a more sustainable and resilient future. Protecting our natural resources and ending waste is not just vital for the environment but for jobs, society and a green economy. We also expect many of these targets will also have a positive impact on reducing littering.”

Seeking to allay fears that England will not be able to meet the more ambitious target, he added: “A 70 per cent target for recycling in England will be a huge challenge as our municipal recycling rates are currently flat-lining, however with the right leadership and commitment, it is possible as many other nations are showing. We hope this package will help to improve recognition in England of the potential of a circular economy and the necessary leadership from all sectors to get us there.”

The European Plastics Recyclers (PRE), meanwhile, are reportedly ‘thrilled’ by the proposals, with PRE President Ton Emans saying: “The changes put forward by the Commission will enable a shift from linear to circular economy for plastics. Unlocking a circular economy will safeguard Europe’s economies by easing our dependency on imported raw materials.”

However, the representative body cautioned that a ‘stronger push for quality recycling is missing in the commission’s proposal, with Emans noting: “The quality of recycled plastics depends on the quality of collection and sorting. Therefore, stricter requirement on separate collection and high-quality sorting are needed in order to reach high-quality recycling.”

‘Lack of concrete measures’

Echoing PRE’s concern, environmental charity Friends of the Earth says that ‘the plans lack concrete measures in some of these [resource-related] areas’. The charity indicated that it considers the continued focus on the weight of materials to be a ‘major flaw’ in the package, as the measurement ignores land and water use.

Friends of the Earth Resource Use Campaigner Richard Dyer said: “These proposals are weak and insufficient and don’t give a full picture of all the resources Europe consumes, such as the land and water we use to make our products.

“The EU is committed to reducing resource use by 2050. A 70 per cent recycling target by 2030 is a big step forward, but if the EU really wants to take this issue seriously it must start measuring all the land, water, carbon and materials Europe is responsible for using – and set out clear plans to reduce them.”

Multiple warnings from Zero Waste Europe

While noting that the circular economy package ‘puts Europe firmly on the zero waste track’, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has also expressed several concerns with the plans.

Specifically, the advocacy group is concerned that the proposed ban on the landfilling of recyclable waste could ‘open the door to incineration’ without a parallel ban on the incineration of recyclable waste.

ZWE also expressed concern about the ‘worrying lack of vision regarding the treatment of plastic packaging, especially in view of marine pollution, which is seen to have the lowest reuse and recycling target of all waste streams’, and a ‘lack of guidance and instruments to boost reuse in Europe despite being the biggest potential contributor to job creation’.

Director of ZWE, Joan Marc Simon said: “The package presented today shows that the EU continues to be in the right path towards Zero Waste and this should be praised. However the proposal still focuses too much on end-of-pipe solutions. Our experience with zero waste municipalities and districts shows that the big push is needed at the front end to: design products that are durable, reusable and recyclable; facilitate optimisation of separate collection – including biowaste; and create legal and economic conditions for prevention, reuse and recycling to take over what now goes to landfill and incineration.”

Defra warns of costs

As would be expected, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has not come out in support of the increased targets, instead suggesting that they could incur extra costs for all those involved in producing and handling waste. Defra’s stance is at odds with that of the European Commission, which stated that one of the principal aims of its approach is to create ‘new growth and job opportunities’.

A spokesman for Defra, however, said: "We think the commission's proposals may have underplayed the potential costs to business, householders and local authorities and will want to consider the impacts fully before we respond.

"While we support efforts to reduce waste, we need to ensure that any new legislation would meet our priorities to protect the environment, incentivise growth and avoid unnecessary burdens."

The government had previously indicated that it would not support higher targets, saying that they ‘would be unlikely to improve the current system and could result in perverse or unintended outcomes’.

In addition to concerns about costs and achievability (with England’s recycling flatlining), the government had expressed concern that increased targets would risk ‘waste being managed further down the hierarchy, or recyclates being of poor quality’. The EC proposals, however, seek to ensure high-quality recycling by clarifying the calculation method for recycled materials, although details on this are still lacking.

The EC proposed directive will now pass to both the European Council and European Parliament for consideration.