Five-stage waste hierarchy approved by environmental committee

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Waste European union

The EU Parliament's environment committee this week voted in favour
of establishing a five-stage waste hierarchy throughout the bloc.

In the process committee members gave many concessions to businesses concerned about the additional costs such a system would impose on manufacturers. The hierarchial system would require food processors and others to pay for impact studies justifying their use of particular types of packaging.

The EU's packagers, supported by the food industry and other sectors, have been lobbying the bloc's legislators to vote against the proposals, claiming that it would be too costly to industry and provide no further benefit to the environment. Industry wants the status quo to remain in place.

The proposed revision to the EU's waste management policy would give preferential treatment to reusable packaging, such as bottles, over recyclable materials. The system is an attempt to push industry to use more environmental-friendly materials, with the eventually aim of cutting down on the amount of waste ending up in landfills.

The change is currently being considered separately by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the EU's top decision-making bodies. The change would require national governments to establish a strict hierarchy of preference between reuse, recycling and other recovery options.

At its vote on 28 November Parliament's environmental committee voted in favour of establishing the "hierarchy of waste" system proposed by the European Commission, in the process adopting about 140 amendments to the Commission text out of the 600 or so tabled in Parliament.

Among them were 14 compromise amendments, which were all approved by a large majority. Committee members also called for various clarifications to the proposals, including a clear distinction between waste and useable by-products.

"There are a number of problems with this directive because it is so wide-ranging,"​ said committee member Caroline Jackson. " We absolutely must clarify it to avoid constantly having to go to the Court of Justice."

Legislators also voted to reinforce the principle that the producers of waste should pay for its treatment.

As a group the environment committee said it regards the new approach suggested by the Commission, based on the "life-cycle" of a product, as "too theoretical".

The committee said it prefers to stick "as a general rule" to the current policy of a waste hierarchy, which ranks treatments in five categories -- prevention, re-use, recycling, other recovery operations, and disposal -- from the most to the least environmentally-sound.

The committee also said member states should be allowed to depart from this hierarchy "when life-cycle assessments and cost-benefit analyses indicate clearly that an alternative treatment option shows a better record"​.

MEPs also want the Commission to clarify the distinction between waste and by-products which can still be used industrially such as glass, metal or compost.

They called on the Commission to issue "interpretative guidelines on the basis of existing jurisprudence" and to propose if appropriate "criteria for determining case by case" when such materials or substances cannot be regarded as waste.

"If appropriate the Commission should also propose environmental criteria to be met by each category of waste which could be used as a secondary product, material or substance, two years after entry into force of the directive,"​ the committee said in a press release after the vote. "Five years after entry into force it should also, if appropriate, state what specifications should apply to compost, aggregates, paper, glass, metal, end-of-life tyres and second-hand clothing."

MEPs on the committee called for total waste production in the EU to be stabilised by 2012, compared to the current proposal of 2008. They asked the Commission to propose indicators by 2008 for assessing progress made by member states and to formulate by 2010 a product eco-design policy as well as targets for waste reduction.

The Committee said it wishes to simplify the requirements for national waste management programmes, to make them less bureaucratic. MEPs on the committee said the requirement for the member states to ensure that "all waste undergoes recovery operations" should apply "where practicable".

"National authorities must also do whatever is needed to ensure that the collection, production and transportation of hazardous waste, as well as its storage and treatment, are carried out in conditions providing optimum protection for the environment, and to ensure that mineral waste oils are collected separately,"​ the committee stated. "And all hazardous waste treatment installations must have a permit."

To underline the importance of the five-stage waste hierarchy. MEPs also called on the Commission to put forward various legislative proposals on practical measures for waste prevention, new indicators, specific directives on biodegradable waste, construction and demolition waste and sewage sludge, and a revision of the directive on storing waste.

The differences of opinion between the committee and the European Commission highlights the start of a difficult and probably long process involved in passing the proposals through the EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers, the bloc's top decision-making bodies.

Earlier this month the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), joined nine other industry organizations in a joint appeal to legislators, calling on them to consider a waste hierarchy system as a "guiding principle" rather than a prescriptive regulatory system set out under EU law.

Julian Carroll, managing director of Europen, has previously said says if such emphasis is put on one waste management method over another, manufacturers could end up paying hundreds of thousands of euros each to justify keeping one particular type of packaging for individual brands. Europen is the bloc's industry association for packagers.

Carroll estimated that processors and packagers could end up spending about €100,000 on each brand to justify the environmental benefits of using a recyclable plastic for their product rather than a reusable bottle.

"This proposal is a big threat to industry,"​ Carroll had said to He also noted that the system does not take into account the growing use of biodegradable packaging, which can be returned to landfill.

Europen notes that a Commission proposal made in December 2005, and subsequently amended in Parliament, restates the principles held in the current waste framework directive. This does not set a hierarchical system between re-use, recycling and other recovery methods, such as incineration.

"It provides for a flexible application of the hierarchy and does not explicitly make a preference between the different recovery options such as re-use, recycling and recovery of energy for example,"​ Europen stated in a position paper on the issue.

However legislators subsequently put forward the five step hierarchical system, which is now being considered at the committee stage. Another amendment has been introduced that allows manufacturers to submit life-cycle assessments and cost-to-benefit analyses proving that an alternative treatment option has a better record for a specific waste stream.

The assessments would allow member states to grant exceptions to the rules.

Europen says waste management policy needs to be flexible enough to take account of local factors, such as the nature and composition of the waste streams, the availability of recovery facilities, the feasibility of using different recovery measures, public support, as well as geographic, demographic, economic and environmental conditions.

"Local authorities (and hence consumers) would face higher costs if prevented from choosing the optimal waste management solution in their particular local circumstances,"​ the association argues.

The proposal to put a hierarchal system in place forms part of a revision of the EU's framework waste management framework, a series of policies setting out agreed upon objectives for all member states.

The bloc also aims to achieve a unified regulatory system for packaged products in the EU, allowing companies to more easily trade across national borders. Different packaging regulations in the EU can serve to restrict or prevent market access.

Other organisations supporting Europen's position include the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE), European Brands Association (AIM), Beverage Can Makers in Europe (BCME), European Federation of Bottled Water (EFBW), EuroCommerce, European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO), PlasticsEurope and the European Soft Drinks Industry (UNESDA).

Around 500kg of waste is produced per person per year in Europe. The amount is increasing faster than GDP and less than a third of it is recycled, according to official statistics. In September 2005, the European Commission proposed an overhaul of the 1975 directive, largely in order to lay down rules on recycling and to require member states to draw up binding national programmes for cutting waste production.

The next stage in passing the regulation occurs in February when all MEPs vote on the proposals at a plenary session.

EU members generate 1.3bn tonnes of waste a year, an amount that has been growing by up to 10 per cent annually since the 1990s.

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