Tuesday

20th Nov 2018

Analysis

Lower waste targets still not low enough for EU states

  • Janet Looker, a UK local councillor (l), participating in an event called Recycle Week (Photo: City of York Council UK)

The European Commission's attempt to bring member states on board on waste reduction targets by lowering them has not worked in practice, documents seen by this website reveal.

Two years ago, the commission presented four legislative proposals as part of its so-called 'circular economy' strategy.

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  • The headquarters of the Council of the EU in Brussels collects glass, paper, and plastic separately - although in at least one case the Brussels agency responsible for waste collection threw everything in the incinerator (Photo: Peter Teffer)

It did so after withdrawing a previous version of a revised waste framework directive, proposed in 2014 by the previous commission administration under Jose Manuel Barroso.

Under Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, the 2030 recycling target for municipal waste slid from 70 percent to 65 percent.

In December 2015, Juncker's deputy Frans Timmermans explained why, at a press conference.

"It was absolutely clear to me that the way the package was presented by the previous college [under Barroso], immediately led to a number of member states simply turning their backs to it, saying 'this is not going to be anything for us, we're not going to do this'," said Timmermans.

"We could have also said: 100 percent! And then it was even more 'ambitious'! But what would that have meant in the real world? We've set a target which we think is very ambitious, but realistic," he noted.

But according to confidential files seen by this website, national governments are now trying, through the Council of the EU, to reduce that target even further, from 65 percent to 60 percent.

The European Parliament meanwhile is arguing for the original 70 percent recycling target.

Piotr Barczak, a campaigner for the non-governmental organisation European Environmental Bureau, said that in environmental files many member states often lobby to reduce binding targets.

"What we see in the negotiations is that the council is trying to water them down even more," Barczak told EUobserver.

"It didn't work out the way the commission wanted," he said.

Barczak said that the withdrawal of the Barroso-era proposal and replacement by the new one also meant a delay in implementation.

The procedure is as follows: after a commission publishes a proposal, the council and the parliament each first need to reach a position on their own.

Following that, they come together in meetings known as trilogue, to hammer out a compromise, which will then become the final text of the legislation.

Barczak said he thought that trilogue meetings over the original 2014 proposal, if it had not been withdrawn, would have been wrapped up under the Dutch council presidency before mid-2016.

The next round of trilogue talks are scheduled for 27 November.

"The targets across the package will be the most political part of discussions but before the negotiations get to that stage, we need to make swift progress on all the technical elements," said Annikky Lamp, a spokeswoman for the Estonian presidency of the Council.

She told EUobserver that it is her country's intention to finish the four files before the end of the year, as a package.

Barczak said he believed that it was possible.

So far, the talks have focused mostly on the revised waste framework directive. But the environmental campaigner noted that the three other waste-related files are shorter in nature.

Progress on technical issues

Documents seen by this website show that on the framework directive, progress has been made.

The number of amendments over which there was disagreement has reduced from 203 in May to 145.

But many issues have not moved on in the past six months.

The council, for example, is rejecting a parliament amendment to introduce an EU-wide food waste target of 30 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030, despite large quantities of edible food being thrown away on a daily basis.

According to Barczak, a political agreement among member states is needed before the file can really be closed.

He referred to a map his organisation has produced, which showed the many differences between member states.

The waste proposals are needed according to the commission to move Europe towards a circular economy, a concept which describes a society in which as little as possible is thrown away, products are reused and repaired where possible, and raw materials are recycled.

A sign that Europe is still far away from reaching that circular economy, was illustrated recently in Brussels, the Belgian city where the EU has its headquarters.

Last month, Belgian media reported that the regional entity in charge of collecting waste in Brussels has been throwing bags with paper and plastic into the incinerator, instead of sending them to the processing separately.

The order to burn all the bags together was given at least once, according to an internal email also seen by this website, but the waste agency told Belgian media that it was an accident.

Another report, published last June by Seas at Risk, said that at least 100,000 tonnes of plastic waste originating from EU countries ends up in sea.

Meanwhile at the ongoing climate conference in Bonn, the circular economy is also seen as a business model.

Gary Crawford, vice-president of international affairs at the Veolia company, said at a side-event the concept was gaining traction.

He welcomed the commission's revised proposal for having a "broader scope" and had a positive approach to the EU negotiators.

"They are doing their best to get this right," he told EUobserver. "I would rather wait some months to get a good package that really works and changes things."

"It should happen soon, if it starts getting longer I'll come back to you with maybe a different response. But I do think it's working," Crawford noted.

'Steady progress'

The commission's environment spokesman Enrico Brivio said in December 2016 that the commission did "not regret at all" withdrawing the previous plan, and that "everything is on track".

On Friday, after publication of this article, Brivio said "there is steady progress, towards a first reading agreement".

"The Commission's role is that of an honest broker, that wants to find the right balance for an ambitious but realistic transition to the Circular economy. We are working full time to honour the inter-institutional agreement to conclude the co-decision process by the end of 2017 and ensure the earliest possible entry into force of the new legislation," he said.

This article was update on Friday 17 November, 11:45 to include the European Commission spokesman's comments

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