On packaging recycling, EU wants to close the loop – EURACTIV.com

Not all recycling is created equal. As the European Commission prepares to revise the EU packaging waste directive, policymakers want to remove degradation and waste from the process.

As consumers, when we put our recycling bags in the trash or on the street, this is the last time we hear about it. We are convinced that our efforts to sort and dispose of our waste mean that this material will be recycled and used in another product.

But that’s not always how it works.

The efficiency of recycling depends on the degree of closure of the recycling loop. With open-loop recycling, a product is recycled but has to be mixed with new raw materials to become a new product, which usually leads to downcycling – where the recycled product is of lower quality than the original.

With closed-loop recycling, packaging is collected and recycled into new packaging, or converted back to raw material, without mixing or recycling. This loop can be made indefinitely, without losing its properties during the recycling process.

Closed loop recycling is obviously preferable from both an efficiency and an environmental point of view. However, this is not always possible. The question facing policy makers is: how far can we close the loop with the various waste streams?

Last year, the European Commission launched an action plan for the circular economy, one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal. The wide range of proposals listed there is intended to influence almost every aspect of our life, ensuring that the products and materials we see everywhere – from home to office, school and medical clinics. – are integrated into a circular reuse and recycling process.

Part of the EU action plan is an upcoming review of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) which will aim to ensure that “all packaging on the EU market is recyclable or reusable economically viable by 2030 ”. It will build on the latest revision of the directive which set new recycling targets for packaging, measuring actual recycling of packaging materials – and not just collection rates.

“How you define circularity matters,” says Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish lawmaker who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the new circular economy action plan. “A big part is the product design process. If you have a bad product design, you can collect all the waste streams you want, but the level of reuse is low. So you need extended producer responsibility, ”she said at a recent EURACTIV event.

The Commission is expected to present its proposal to revise the Packaging Waste Directive early next year. One of the ideas put forward is to introduce recycled content targets for specific packaging formats. The concept has strong support in the European Parliament, where MEPs believe it can create a market for secondary raw materials in Europe and stimulate demand for recycled materials rather than relying on virgin materials.

Rozalina Petrova, a cabinet member of EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, said the EU executive was considering targets as a way to ensure closed-loop recycling of materials where possible, as it turned out be the best way to get all the players in the value chain. work together.

“We have already seen what very well targeted requirements can deliver in the context of the Single Use Plastics Directive,” she said. “We have seen that if the recycling industry is ready to provide the material, in reality the producers are not really ready to accept this recycled content. “

Different materials

The chicken or the egg for the Commission is whether the problem lies with a lack of recycled content, with producers’ reluctance to use recycled content, or a combination of the two.

EU officials are therefore considering whether to offer a mandatory proportion of recycled content or instead focus on increasing collection. The concern is that for some materials, like plastic, an increase in collection may not result in an increased use of recycled materials if open-loop recycling processes still lead to a degradation in quality.

The answer varies depending on the type of material. Glass, for example, has relatively closed loop recycling and therefore the focus could be more on increasing collection.

“Recycled glass is our most important raw material, and the amount of recycled glass we can put into our production depends directly on the availability of recycled glass,” said Vanessa Chesnot, head of product policy at the European Federation of packaging glass, FEVE.

To close the gap, FEVE worked with beverage companies in an initiative to increase collection. “76% of the glass placed on the market is collected. We want to recoup that 24%, but as glass manufacturers we cannot do it alone. It depends on the whole value chain that works together and collaborates ”, she declared during the EURACTIV event, supported by FEVE.

Paper is another material that has a more closed loop recycling model and where solutions could be found more at the collection level.

“We believe this [mandatory recycled content targets] should only be imposed where the recycling value chain is not functioning well, which is the case with plastic, ”said Annick Carpentier, CEO of the Alliance for Beverage Board and the Environment. “But this is not the case for paper,” she recently told EURACTIV.

For plastics, the situation is complicated by difficulties in accessing recycled materials, said Patricia Fosselard, General Secretary of Natural Mineral Waters Europe, at the EURACTIV event. “We are currently facing a challenge: there is not enough recycled PET on the market for us to complete the loop,” she said. “So for this to become a reality, we clearly need an increase in collection and better sorting, and an important factor would also be access to recycled packaging material. “

EU aims to tackle packaging waste with new legislation

Europe aims to reduce waste as quickly as possible in order to stop the overconsumption that harms the planet and worsens climate change. But despite previous attempts, waste packaging is still on the rise in Europe.

Collection methods

So what materials are best suited for closed loop recycling? Vanya Veras, general secretary of Municipal Waste Europe, said the answer is more complicated than it first appears.

“When we talk about closed-loop recycling, the most problematic materials are usually plastics,” she said at the event. “All eco-designed materials for closed-loop recycling are suitable for closed-loop recycling. Everything else must be treated differently.

“There are gaping holes in our waste management system globally and particularly in Europe,” she added. “It doesn’t matter how good our collection system is or how good our materials are. If the situation continues where there are transfers of non-localized waste inside and outside of Europe, we will continue to lose waste due to the wrong type of treatment, even in landfills or landfills. . “

But the question of how to increase this collection is controversial. Some EU countries, such as Germany, have deposit systems in place where customers have to pay a fee for bottles that they only collect if they hand them over to a bottle bank. In Germany, this system exists for glass and plastic bottles. But other countries, like Belgium, have no deposit system at all.

“These discussions took place [while crafting] the single-use plastics directive ”, recalled Petrova from the Commission. “At that time, there had been a lot of debate about whether deposit refund systems were a silver bullet to achieving high segregated collection… or if they were the silver bullet for bottles that would kill everyone. others. “

“The question of whether to introduce a security deposit system, or some other arrangement under extended producer responsibility, was left open to take into account subsidiarity – local conditions or arrangements,” Petrova added. “Deposit refund systems are a great example of behavioral science. This way, the waste really has value for whoever holds it. But then the question is whether there are trade-offs with other materials, in case we only perceive as valid the things for which we get a refund, while the others are not handled as well.

As the Commission prepares its proposal to see the light of day in a few months, players in the packaging and beverage sectors will be closely monitoring policies that could have a major effect on their functioning.

> Watch the full conference below on YouTube

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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