If recycling is to be a viable pillar of the EU’s emerging circular economy, the EU needs to launch a credible investment programme to boost local recycling. Nothing short of a full “Marshall Plan” for recycling will be enough to tackle Europe’s recycling challenge – and better separate collection should be at the heart of such a plan.
Until last year, millions of tonnes of paper and plastics scraps were sent to China for recycling. Since January 2018, China has all but closed its doors – only the purest bales of paper and plastics are still allowed in. With today’s collection and separation efforts, most often fail to reach that standard – exposing the weakness of our current recycling model. A single diaper or any kind electronic waste can disrupt recyclers’ separation efforts and “contaminate” hundreds of kilos of otherwise perfectly recyclable paper or plastics.
As China has closed its doors, waste exporters have turned to other Asian countries in a desperate quest for alternatives. Meanwhile, landfilling, is increasingly being used as a stop-gap measure. Transporting tonnes of waste to the ends of the earth to be “recycled” in questionable circumstances or even landfilling – none of this is sustainable.
Europe needs to stop relying on Asia for recycling and instead invest in capacity at home. Recycling costs and efficiency can be significantly improved with better collection measures. Any serious EU investment programme for recycling needs to focus on deploying first-rate collection systems across the EU. All resources need to be collected and separated at source. For this to happen, municipalities, businesses and consumers all need to accept their share of the responsibility.
The EU’s claim to sustainability can only be credible if it invests in smart collection infrastructure, communication and sets up and enforces the right incentives and disincentives for separate collection to become a reality. This should be one of the next European Commission’s priorities.