Europe needs to 'rethink its relationship with waste'

Europe is essentially 'exporting' its waste problems to developing countries, which is 'unacceptable', argues Anna Rosbach.

By Anna Rosbach

21 Mar 2014

Recycling is gold. Literally. Phones, cameras and other sorts of electronics all contain gold, silver and rare earth minerals. However, everyday ships leave European ports with hazardous waste and obsolete products with valuable resources, which are consequently dumped in third world countries causing serious impacts on human health and the environment.

Our current waste shipment regulation (WSR) should prevent this from happening, but with a non-compliance rate within the EU as high as 25 per cent, we obviously have a problem we need to address.

One of the reasons why these illegal shipments continue is the lack of willingness of some member states to efficiently control waste shipments, which has created the phenomenon of 'port hopping' where waste exporters seeks to export waste from those with the most lenient controls. This is, of course, unacceptable. In essence we are exporting our waste problems to developing countries where the task of sorting and treating the waste is outsourced to often barefooted children and scrap workers with no means to process products, such as old TV screens, wires, and plastic. This consequently results in high clean-up costs in developing countries, significant loss of resources and a distortion of the internal market given the lack of a level playing field for industry.

"A recent commission study found that full compliance with… EU waste legislation… would increase the turnover of waste management and recycling industries by €42bn a year and create more than 400,000 new jobs by 2020"

The short-term solutions are first and foremost to be found in a stricter enforcement of the WSR, more controls being carried out and clear sanctions mechanisms. However, proper inspections and efficient control systems only address the symptoms. The long-term and viable solution derives from how we understand our economy and our consumption of natural resources. Scaling resource efficiency is not just 'nice-to-have'. It is a business imperative, and in a world with significant population growth, we need to do more with less.

One man's trash is another's treasure. This has been the trend in recent years as resource prices have increased, the benefits of resource efficiency have become ever clearer and the exhaustion of natural resources has become a structural risk to long-term economic stability. Consequently, the world economic forum (WEF) has incorporated resource efficiency in their yearly accounts of countries' competitiveness, and more and more companies have weaved resource efficiency into their core strategy to drive revenue growth and reduce cost.

The potential savings of a higher degree of resource efficiency could amount to €1.4 trillion by 2030 according to the WEF. Whether we want it or not, resource efficiency will define the winners and losers of tomorrow's economy and we do not even have to wait till tomorrow. McKinsey & Company already consider resource efficiency as more important for competitiveness than, for example, wages.

Therefore, we should not only be much stricter in our enforcement of the WSR because it requires that all waste exported is treated in an environmentally sound manner to protect citizens and environment, but also because we need the resources ourselves. It is the foundation of our economy.

Europe is a resource-constraint continent and is currently completely dependent on imports of a wide range of raw materials. In this context, it makes even less sense to export our waste as it contains valuable minerals and metals.

A recent commission study found that full compliance with eight pieces of EU waste legislation, including the WSR, would increase the turnover of waste management and recycling industries by €42bn a year and create more than 400,000 new jobs by 2020.

As member states have already agreed to, the circular economy will be decisive to Europe's economic future and job creation. A first step would be to rethink our relationship to waste. Both our economy and common environment depend on it.

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