Uncertainty about the circular economy proposals doesn’t mean we should sit back, do nothing and wait, says Steve Almond, UK Sales at TOMRA Sorting. So what exactly does he propose we should do? CIWM Journal Online Exclusive
Many among the UK’s waste industry have been quick to voice their views on the European Commission’s recent decision to withdraw the existing proposal on the circular economy to make way for a “broader and more ambitious approach”. Spokespeople within the waste sector and further afield have reacted with surprise and anger, publicly condemning the decision to delay and highlighting the vital role that the proposal, if implemented, could have in boosting economies, creating jobs and growth as well as environmental benefits.
So, what happens next? We now face a period of uncertainty while further discussions take place on revising the original proposal. The timings have not been made public on when the reworked proposal will be announced, but talks are already underway. It’s not clear whether the new proposal will be a “start from scratch” approach or simply tweaking the original one. Many are understandably concerned about this lack of detail.
The European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker only took over his role in November 2014 and Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of “better regulation”, is known for his tendency towards deregulation. This all adds up to an uncertain future for the circular economy proposal at a time when, particularly for the UK’s secondary commodity market, there is a real need for clear goals and targets.
While this uncertainty is frustrating, and the Commission should have come up with an alternative proposal rather than simply scrapping the original one, it’s not an excuse for the UK’s waste industry to simply sit back on its laurels and wait for the next announcement. The original proposal, announced in July 2014, set out clear legally-binding targets including a 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030; an 80% recycling target for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030; and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.
Yes, the recycling targets may change, but recovery and recycling will no doubt continue to be a major focus of the revised proposal. We need to move on from our frustration and crack on with the job of recovering as much material as possible from all of our waste streams.
Plastic Demonstrates Circular Model
One material where this is particularly pertinent is plastic. Despite the fact that the UK’s is facing an uncertain future due to falling oil prices, plastic is an ideal material to demonstrate that it is possible and profitable to move towards a circular economy model. In its original circular economy proposal, the European Commission proposed a 60% plastics recycling target by the end of 2030. While this target may change, the need to recover more plastic from our waste streams won’t.
Increasing the recovery of plastic from household waste will remain key, however, with recycling rates of household plastics unlikely to increase significantly, we really need to look at recovering plastic from other material streams such as C&I and black bag residual household waste. It is estimated that these waste streams contain 12% films and up to 7% mixed rigid plastics, as well as PE, PET and PP.
Using sensor-based sorting technology, it is possible to sort this material into different end fractions and different sizes, achieving upwards of 90% plastics recovery from C&I and residual black bag waste. With high market demand for the recovered material and high recycling targets likely to remain for plastics within the revised proposal, the UK needs to invest in capturing and correctly processing this material.
So, while we await further announcements from the European Commission on the future of our circular economy, we should be concentrating on taking steps to implement that circular economy, investing in our infrastructure, looking at alternative recovery routes and continuing our drive to recover as much material as possible from all of our waste streams.