Recycling should help tackle waste and the lack of raw materials, but it is not the primary solution to the increasing amount of waste produced in the EU.
Europe is trying to reduce its resource consumption. The obvious approach is to make products more durable and to reuse and repair them. But even if products and resources are used for as long as possible their lifespan is finite, therefore recycling or disposing them becomes inevitable. In contrast to the linear system, landfilling and incineration of waste should be prevented through efficient recycling with respect to cost, energy and materials. An efficient recycling system helps to recover waste instead of disposing of it. At the end of the product’s life, waste is converted into secondary raw materials to save primary raw materials. This also helps to reduce environmental pollution.
For some time now, society has also been calling for a reduction in the use of landfills and waste incineration. Within Europe, landfills are not available in unlimited quantities and the management of waste volumes is becoming increasingly expensive as a result. Exporting waste only leads to relocation and does not reduce the global amount of waste and is therefore not an alternative. The European Union (EU) is under pressure to optimally reduce waste in Europe through optimal recycling.
Fig 1 This graph reveals that waste generation within the EU is not decreasing. Between 2004 and 2018, waste generation within the Eu was relatively constant, averaging 2.3 billion tonnes of waste. Managing this huge amount of waste will be a tremendous challenge.
Is recycling really that good?
The waste management chain is complex compared to the linear system of disposal. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation assumes that only a fraction of the actual raw material value can be recovered through the complex process of recycling. The recycling process does not lead to a complete recovery of the original raw materials. Many products are difficult to recycle and a lack of material separation technologies and disorganised collection systems lead to contamination. This also leads to a poorer quality of recycled raw materials. If recycled materials can no longer be used in the production of the original product, but can only be used for the production of a lower quality product, it is referred to as downcycling. Poorer quality secondary raw materials often cannot be used as a substitute for high quality primary raw materials and thus cannot optimally be used as a replacement for production.
For several years now, the European Commission has been setting targets for recycling rates. High recycling rates are seen as economically and ecologically positive. The question here is whether the actual energy and material savings and also the economic cost savings through recycling are as high as assumed. After a certain point in recycling, more and more energy is used to recycle less and less. Recycling saves materials, but if it is too intensive it leads to rebound effects and thus to negative environmental impacts. This hypothesis is confirmed by R. de Man and H. Friege, according to whom an endless cycle is impossible, since a complete recovery of resources would require an infinite amount of energy in recycling. Depending on the type of waste and the infrastructure of the treatment process of a region, individual “optimal” recycling rates should be set.
Ensuring efficiency in terms of energy and cost in recycling of materials highlights the relevance of new technologies, infrastructure and knowledge. The 35% increase in patents in recycling from 2000 to 2013 is a positive development, since recycling can be made more efficient with continued progress.
Binding rules and standards could additionally promote correct waste separation by consumers and coordinate waste collection and treatment infrastructures. However, quality differences emerge due to regional waste recycling strategies, as member states of the EU have national waste regulations. For example, the recycling rate of municipal waste has increased within the European Union to 46% in 2016. However, the development of waste generation and recycling differs significantly in the member states.
An increase in the recycling rate or a minimum rate makes sense in many places, but this requires investments. Lower costs in the recycling process would, in turn, reduce the prices for secondary raw materials. At the same time, the social and environmental costs of extracting and processing primary raw materials should be reflected in the price of those materials. Price signals in the form of a tax on resource extraction, energy or material use, environmental externalities or subsidies for recycling could increase the demand for secondary raw materials. Standards and legislation also help to ensure that quality secondary raw materials are no longer considered waste and second-class goods. This would define the waste status of secondary raw materials and thus strengthen confidence in the secondary raw materials market. Last but not least, a functioning market is needed to enable trade in secondary raw materials and to prevent illegal waste exports to countries with lower environmental standards.
Increasing efforts in recycling is definitely one of the most important tasks of the EU, especially since reuse and longer use of products is not yet the norm. Until new technologies are developed and the infrastructure in the waste system is sufficiently expanded, recycling will not be able to be used optimally. Therefore, it is right that the EU’s Green Deal intends to support countries across Europe to meet recycling targets. The “EU rules on the shipment of waste” are to be revised and thus illegal waste exports from Europe counteracted. The most important thing will be for Europe to work together to recycle waste and save resources throughout the continent.