"I am happy that the agreement now opens the way for a substantial increase in the recycling of packaging waste," said environment commissioner Margot Wallström. "It will enable consumers to actively participate in recycling schemes and show their commitment to a more responsible management of packaging waste."
The final debate mainly focused on two issues: whether incineration of packaging waste should count as recovery or not; and the deadline for Greece, Ireland and Portugal and accession countries to achieve the targets of the Directive.
Recent judgements by the European Court of Justice had clarified that incineration of municipal waste in incinerators is to be considered a disposal operation if the main purpose of the operation is to dispose of the waste. Recovery of the contained energy as heat or electricity would not change this classification. This also meant that packaging waste incinerated in such installations could no longer be counted for the recovery targets of the Packaging Directive.
Several Member States had used incineration as part of their strategy to fulfill the EU targets and were now faced with falling short of the targets under the new interpretation. The solution found allows Member States to continue to count incineration for the EU targets but also foresees a general review of this issue in the framework of the EU Thematic Strategy on Waste Prevention and Recycling, which is in preparation.
In a compromise between the European Parliament and the Council, the deadline for Greece, Ireland and Portugal to achieve the targets has been set as 2011. This reduces the additional delay compared to the other 12 Member States from currently four to three years. The deadline for accession countries will be set under a new proposal which the Commission intends to issue shortly. With a view to the forthcoming accession, this will allow the new countries to fully participate in the decision making process on their transition periods.
The agreement by the conciliation committee now must be confirmed in third reading by Council and Parliament. The new Directive is likely to enter into force in early spring 2004 and will need to be transposed into national legislation by autumn 2005.
Governments and environmental groups have worked hard to make public opinion amenable to the concept of recycling, and recent data from the Association of European Producers of Steel Packaging (APEAL) suggests that they are succeeding. Last year's recycling rate topped 60 per cent across the continent, a figure that represents an 8 per cent growth in collected and recycled tonnage compared to last year.
This means that the steel packaging industry has now reached its voluntary objective of 60 per cent that it set itself for 2005. And in terms of meeting the legal requirements, steel significantly contributes to reaching the EU recycling target for metal packaging (steel and aluminium), which of course the Packaging Directive has set at 55 per cent by the year 2008.
However, some Member States are more likely to meet their targets than others. According to APEAL figures, just 42 per cent of steel packaging in the UK was recycled in 2002, well below the European average of 60 per cent. Belgium (93 per cent), Germany (79 per cent), and the Netherlands (78 per cent) topped the table. According to Friends of the Earth, the UK recycles less steel than Australia (43 per cent), Korea (47 per cent), the US (59 per cent), South Africa (63 per cent) and Japan (86 per cent).
Even worse is Finland, which has a very poor recycling rate of 39 per cent. Portugal, at 28 per cent, remains at the 2001 level, but has already exceeded the minimum recycling rate of 15 per cent that it had to reach under law by the end of 2005. Nonetheless, APEAL believes that Europe stands out favourably in an international context - only Japan and South Africa, with 86 per cent and 63 per cent respectively, exceed the European average in terms of steel recycling.