Europe takes responsibility for raw materials

The scarcity of raw materials makes it urgent that we make sustainable use of materials. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament want to prepare a determined strategy for this as soon as possible, with a significant role for the waste sector as an important supplier of recovered raw materials and energy. ‘Efficient waste management will make European industry more competitive.'

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Policy review for more sustainable materials use underway

Europe takes responsibility for raw materials

The scarcity of raw materials makes it urgent that we make sustainable use of materials. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament want to prepare a determined strategy for this as soon as possible, with a significant role for the waste sector as an important supplier of recovered raw materials and energy. ‘Efficient waste management will make European industry more competitive.'

By Pieter van den Brand

The European Commission wants to find answers to the urgent problem of raw materials shortages, not only because it has set a goal of establishing a recycling society – a society in which wastes are recovered, recycled and reused as much as possible – but also out of economic necessity. European industry is finding it increasingly difficult to source sufficient quantities of raw materials to manufacture hi-tech products. China, which meets 97 per cent of global demand for the scarce raw materials needed for the magnets in wind turbines, disk drives and electric cars, has decided to release just a limited amount for export. During meetings with business leaders, European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has already set out his ambitious plans in detail. Making more sustainable use of raw materials is good for the environment and stimulates economic growth and employment creation. ‘A roadmap towards a resource-efficient Europe’, explains a source within the European Commission, is the working title of the recently launched review of the Thematic Strategy for sustainable use of natural resources, which was published in 2005.

The European Commission interprets ‘resource efficiency’ primarily as the minimum use of raw materials with the lowest possible environmental impact. Materials recycling is a key element in the strategy. Potočnik indicated as much in his speeches to business leaders. ‘Waste is a new raw material which we cannot ignore. There is enormous potential for efficiently recovering many secondary materials.’ To press home his case for recovering valuable raw materials, Potočnik frequently gestures to his mobile phone, especially because of the expensive metals this high-tech device contains. ‘Barely two per cent of all mobile phones in the world are recycled’, points out the Slovenian EU commission

Stimulus

The European Commission’s aim is to close existing product life cycle loops as much as possible. The policy renewal, in which the policy instruments are to be harmonised and tightened up, should be completed in June 2011. The end result, explains the source within the European Commission, could be a materials policy approach that explicitly names individual materials. ‘But nothing is certain, because we are still in the concept stage,’ he stresses. The Raw Materials Initiative, in which targets were set two years ago with the goal of compensating for the shortage of economically recoverable metals, will be revised at the end of this year. In any case, Potočnik wants to stimulate the recycling of products that contain raw materials in demand by European industry, primarily in those EU countries that have not made much progress with the separate collection and processing of waste. ‘We have nothing new to teach countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands that are in the forefront of developments,’ adds the source in Brussels.  

Judith Merkies recently visited two Dutch recycling facilities and was impressed by the high rates of recovery of wastes for recycling and reuse. ‘This example should be picked up in Europe and adopted more widely.’

From left to right on the photo: Pieter Hofstra (President, DWMA), Ton Goverde (Corporate Relations Director, VGG), Judith Merkies (MEP, S&D group), Egbert Vennik (Regional Director, VGG)

MEP Judith Merkies agrees whole-heartedly. She recently visited two recycling facilities in the Netherlands and was impressed by the high rates of recovery of plastic packaging and other wastes for recycling and reuse. ‘The Dutch waste sector is already a long way down the line,’ she says, but across the EU as a whole there is still much to be done. ‘Many more EU countries need to do much more recycling,’ says Merkies, who, if the topic is awarded to the social democratic group (PES) in the European Parliament, is keen to be the rapporteur for raw materials. This would enable her to steer the legislative process on this topic. Meanwhile, the EU has not been dragging its feet. ‘In a short time the European Parliament has already passed a considerable body of legislation on sustainable production and ecodesign. Now we must set the targets. We must speed up the process. If we want to move towards a European recycling society we will all have to work in unison, in all member states. Implementation should be coordinated better and harmonised across Europe. Germany now has refundable cans and bottles, but Belgium doesn’t. Also, more people need to be motivated to separate their waste and to keep on doing so. It is more important that we support the public in their efforts so that they join in the transition to a recycling society.’

Dual benefit

By making more sustainable use of raw materials Europe can benefit on two fronts, argues Adriaan Visser, vice-president of the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD). ‘The economic chain and the waste chain are closely tied to each other. Working on the sustainable use of raw materials is almost always accompanied by more efficient production. Efficient waste management will make European industry more competitive,’ emphasises the CEO of SITA Northern Europe Waste Services, who is responsible for all activities in Germany and the Benelux. He argues for intensive cooperation between industry and the waste sector. An example from his own company: together with Renault and Airbus, SITA is dismantling and recycling cars and aeroplanes.

Frans Beckers, secretary of the Board of Directors of the Van Gansewinkel Group, also applauds the European ambitions. Four years ago this Dutch waste concern, active in nine European countries, ‘drew the raw materials card’, to use Beckers’ own words. ‘About three-quarters of the eleven million tonnes of waste that we collect each year is given a second life. We now recycle all the plastics from the white and brown goods processing lines. At the end of the process much of the recycled plastic has not lost any of its quality. Although other waste streams are downcycled, this is still better than having useful materials end up in landfills.’ Beckers would prefer to take a more fundamental approach. ‘Start at the source. The agenda is now determined by more efficient materials use. That is too meagre. We must use smarter production techniques; I call that resource effectiveness.’ As an example he mentions the development of compostable food packaging. ‘Still a long way off? Absolutely not. We are already discussing this with European industry.’

Visser observes that many raw materials are unnecessarily lost from the production chain. ‘The worldwide recycling percentage for several valuable metals is less than thirty per cent.’ Metals can be recovered from dozens of waste streams, not only from mobile phones, but also from the bottom ash of waste-to-energy plants, which already happens at some facilities. ‘The EU will have to steer with a firm hand to reduce the landfilling of recyclable and reusable wastes to benefit materials recycling. At the moment on average more than forty per cent of household waste is landfilled, in Poland even as much as ninety per cent. In the Netherlands this is three per cent.’ Just as important, thinks Visser, is at the same time to stimulate energy recovery from the residual waste fraction. ‘At the moment it is not economically feasible to recycle everything.’

Network

The waste sector has a logistical network in place for the return of discarded products. Beckers explains the contribution the sector can make to the European effort: ‘We have many years of experience with dismantling and separating materials.’ It is crucial that not only the EU but also national governments create the right conditions. ‘Stop producing obstructive legislation and imposing penalties. Put your money into stimulating innovation. The task for politicians is to draw up a positive sustainability agenda. The Dutch waste sector is relatively far advanced and should be involved in setting this new European agenda.’ Visser of SITA contends that carefully chosen, harmonised European end of waste criteria for raw materials can raise the marketability and use of secondary materials from waste. ‘Europe can expect that our sector will process waste higher up the waste hierarchy and return it to the production chain as raw materials or energy. This means that the amount of waste lost from the chain will decline. At the moment three-quarters of the plastic fraction is recovered for reuse as a material, of which two-thirds is of high quality. In France SITA has developed a recycling process for producing PET granules with the same properties as the primary raw material needed for the manufacture of PET bottles. The granules meet the strictest hygiene standards and food safety guidelines. Visser thinks it is an excellent idea to use pricing to steer consumers and industry in the right direction. ‘Businesses that produce sustainably could be given tax incentives.’ Another useful development, in his opinion, would be to work towards minimum levels of recycled materials in products, ‘although it would be advisable to keep an eye on the competitive position of European industry if such a move is taken unilaterally by the EU.’

Janez Potocnik (European Environment Commissioner):"Waste too is a new resource we can scarcely afford to ignore. It is expensive to throw away, but valuable if processed."
Frans Beckers (Van Gansewinkel Group):"The Dutch waste sector should be involved in setting this new European agenda."
Adriaan Visser (SITA):"The EU will have to steer with a firm hand to reduce the landfilling of recyclable and reusable wastes."
Judith Merkies (Member European Parliament):"Many more countries need to do much more recycling."

Vision DWMA

DWMA supports the European actors in strengthening proper implementation and enforcement of European waste legislation. One key feature for making more sustainable use of raw materials is to establish and implement policies with the aim to divert waste from large scale land filling and focus on maximal recovery.

The European waste sector is becoming an increasingly important source of raw materials. Raw materials could be used and recycled much more efficiently. DWMA supports the idea of Judith Merkies who stated that it would be worth investigating whether European minimum standards could be introduced to prevent the landfilling of reusable and recyclable waste. The minimum standards set for each type of waste (minimum levels of processing) and other waste polices in the Netherlands have lead to a maximum recycling of waste.