Circular Economy: how MEPs can prioritise material recovery

Written by Annick Carpentier on 22 February 2016 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

To achieve a real circular economy, the EU must take measures to ensure that materials embedded in products are properly recovered and recycled, writes Annick Carpentier.

There are several major economic and environmental benefits from recycling metals in your phone, drinks can, office building or car. Recycling rates for base metals are already high, with over 90 per cent recovered from automotive or construction applications, and 60 per cent from packaging.  

Despite that, too much of Europe's municipal waste is still poorly collected and treated. In 2014, only a third of the EU's electronic waste was properly recycled, while €4.3bn in scrap base metals was exported without any guarantees regarding its quality treatment or environmental or health impact.

The European Commission's circular economy package will begin to address this situation, and we call on both the European Parliament and Council to confirm and strengthen the Commission's proposal. I'd like to highlight two key elements in that direction: a robust recycling rate measurement, and equivalent conditions for the treatment of exported waste.


Currently, EU member states can calculate their recycling rates at different stages of the recycling value chain, which can create inconsistencies. Some countries only base their recycling rates on collected waste, even though that includes waste destined for landfill or incineration.

The Commission's waste legislation proposals address this situation. All member states would have to measure their recycling rates directly after the mechanical sorting phase, under the condition that waste is then reprocessed into products, materials or substances in a final recycling process.

This has two major benefits. Firstly, all countries will measure their recycling rates in the same way, allowing for a real benchmark of progress. Secondly, this maintains the focus on material recovery, which is the essence of recycling within a Circular Economy. As such, the Parliament and Council need to safeguard these definitions when reviewing the Package.

Today, member states can also count their exported waste to the attainment of recycling rate calculations. However, it's not always required to validate that this exported waste is properly recycled. To ensure materials are safely and efficiently recovered, this needs to change.

Take the example of eWaste. A recent study concluded that only 35 per cent of European eWaste is properly recycled, despite the potential for recovering valuable metals such as aluminium, copper, gold and cobalt. Another 33 per cent was recycled under non-compliant conditions, while 15 per cent was exported.

We are calling for a level playing field for Europe's high quality recycling plants, and improvements to the quality treatment of exported waste. It should be a requirement that EU waste is treated through safe and efficient processes, even if it is treated outside of Europe. This will protect the environment and climate, while reducing material losses.

As a start, the Commission's new waste proposals identify that exported municipal and construction and demolition waste can only be counted towards targets when treated under conditions equivalent to EU environmental requirements. However, these 'equivalent conditions' still need to be defined. The EU should mandate that for relevant waste streams, standards should be implemented and certified to ensure equivalent quality recycling processes are being employed.   

For example, a set of European standards are being developed on treatment of eWaste. These could be the basis to demonstrate equivalent conditions for all EU eWaste recyclers, wherever they are located. Alternatively, for waste streams like aluminium, delegated acts can refer to existing environmental, health and safety standards.

To summarise, Europe's legislators need to safeguard the improved definitions for measuring real European recycling rates, and need to make it mandatory that key EU waste streams are recycled using equivalent quality processes, even outside of Europe.

These two key changes will, we believe, help make sure that valuable metals find their way back into Europe's economy.


About the author

Annick Carpentier is Sustainability Director at Eurometaux, the European metals association

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