EU must rethink its waste management strategy

Written by Sirpa Pietikäinen on 3 November 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Europe must rethink its waste management strategy and ensure we make the most out of all materials, writes Sirpa Pietikäinen.

Sirpa Pietikäinen | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


We are already consuming about 1.5 times the amount of natural resources that our planet can renew annually. If we continue at the current rate, by 2050 we will require the equivalent of four earths’ worth of resources annually. Unfortunately, we only have one.

The combined effects of population growth, our achievements in reducing extreme poverty and growing technological advances mean that there are more people with purchasing power - and an ever-growing range of more or less useful things to spend money on.

At the same time, there has been an unfortunate decline in the durability of goods.


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As part of the move towards circular economy and fulfilment of the waste hierarchy aims, we need to remember that the best and most resource-efficient products are created through well thought-out design. We must also shift our thinking of waste management to resource logistics.

In terms of design, an effort should be made not to create another additional device, but to improve or substitute components of an older one. Products should be composed of modules and adaptable components so they can be modified to meet the needs of the user.

It is also essential to consider reparability in the design phase. I don’t buy a new car just because I have a flat tire, nor do I buy one summer car with summer tires and a winter car with winter tyres, I just have one car with changeable tyres. The principle that has always applied to cars now has to apply to all devices.

Going forward, all components should be designed with recycling in mind - once a device or appliance is no longer needed or no longer works in its original form, where can its individual components be reused? How long can the pathway of the product be made to extend its lifeline before it ends up, finally, as waste?

Most materials per se are neither good nor bad - they are just not being used properly. Take the example of plastic: recycled plastic is a strong and durable material for transportation pallets, but as disposable coffee cups it is problematic and contributes to the problem of micro plastics.

From the consumer perspective, it is important to be able to build confidence in investing into higher quality and durable goods and appliances.

The worrying trend of purposefully putting machines on the market that are not intended to last has to be stopped immediately and in all its forms. An EU-wide legislation that demands a reasonable minimum guarantee for all electronics and home appliances is required for this purpose.

In terms of resource logistics, there should be a clear logic for how a resource e¬fficient society functions. A clear waste hierarchy must be put in place and respected. The main priority is to prevent waste and re-use as much material as possible.

Products should be used for as long as possible, they should be upgradeable and easy to repair. This would be possible through modularity, where components of devices can be used elsewhere, and replacing parts that wear out faster is possible without the need to replace the entire device. Materials should be transformable and useable for other purposes.

New primary resources should be taken to industrial processes only when those ones already in production can’t be reused. 

To ensure the highest possible usability of the recycled materials, we would need to have point-to-point closed resource use loops and support them, for example with deposit systems - bottles to bottles and tyres to tyres. 

This requires a stronger producer liability system. Without closed loops, the collected waste is not su¬fficiently pure enough for it to be recycled back to its original form.

We should prevent recycling from downgrading materials into lower quality products. After this direct material collection, at least 70 per cent of the rest of the useable materials, at least glass, plastics, paper, carton, metal and textiles, would need to be recycled.

The remaining residue should still go thorough high-quality sorting, especially optical sorting, which can still allow many materials to be subsequently recycled and reprocessed into secondary raw materials. 

Only at the very last stage - the last remaining 10 per cent of mixed waste that cannot be recycled - can we consider incineration. Incineration as such cannot be a part of Europe’s future sustainable waste management.

The task is no small feat. For example, in terms of plastics it is estimated that of the 25 million tonnes of plastics waste in EU, only 30 per cent is recycled. Another study found that producing plastics releases 1.8-2.3 times their own weight in greenhouse gas.

If there is a need to burn fossil fuels, it should be enough to do it once, not to make fossil fuels into plastic which is then delivered for incineration. Plastic should be perceived as too valuable to be used as anything but plastic.

The adequate management of the circular economy and waste hierarchy can generate jobs and reduce waste. It is also what the European consumer wants; the 2014 Eurobarometer found that 77 per cent of Europeans would rather fix their old appliances than buy a new one. I would say therefore that it’s a win-win-win situation for all. We should go for it.

 

About the author

Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP, FI) is Parliament’s rapporteur on resource efficiency: Moving towards a circular economy

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