Report validates waste hierarchy, but says industry is right to pursue flexible approach

The prioritising of waste management options (prevention, followed by recycling, incineration and landfill) - known as the waste hierarchy - has been given a reprieve by a review of the literature on different plastic recovery options.

The review, published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), says the waste hierarchy is valid as a guiding principle for the recycling of plastic packaging waste. But the review adds that the waste management industry is justified in looking at more flexible approaches.

The review, conducted for the EEB by the German Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), says that a recycling target of 30% for plastic packaging waste is scientifically justifiable. Such a target, the review says, will bring considerable environmental benefits and be economically feasible.

The waste hierarchy assumes that certain waste management options should be preferred to others. The EEB claims that preventing waste by changing product design and packaging logistics is the most environmentally friendly option, followed by recycling, incineration with energy recovery and final disposal (see related story).

Industry federations claim that the waste hierarchy is obsolete and have attacked the European Commission’s demands for higher recycling targets in the revision of the EU Packaging Directive this (see related story). They argue that a more flexible case by case approach is needed to identify the environmentally-friendly option. Recent studies have seemed to confirm this.

The EEB therefore asked the IAE to review these studies and to pay particular attention to the most controversial area of waste management, plastic packaging waste. The survey compared the methodology and the results of eight Life-Cycle Analyses (LCA) in different European countries. The review also looked at so-called grey zones between the different recovery options of the waste hierarchy.

The study finds that there is a case for more differentiated approaches to the management of plastic packaging waste, but that the idea of a hierarchy of approaches was still valid as a guiding principle for policy decisions.

The study also concludes that more ambitious recycling targets are environmentally justified, and they may become more cost-effective in the near future. Therefore, the review says, it is realistic to set recycling targets for plastic packaging waste.

The review confirms the environmental plastic waste management hierarchy as:

  1. mechanical and monomer recycling
  2. feedstock recycling and mono-incineration
  3. waste incineration with energy recovery
  4. landfill

The study says a 30% recycling target for mechanical and monomer recycling and 60% overall recycling target for the revision of the packaging directive is scientifically justified. The study assumes that recycling costs can be considerably reduced and become competitive if already available automatic sorting technologies are widely used. The study adds that recycling is worth promoting even if transport distances are large.

The study also identifies a number of ‘grey zones’, which it says should be considered when drafting legislation. Low value recycling, such as the substitution of wood and concrete by secondary plastics, should not be encouraged, because this may lead to environmental problems.

The review also found that, under optimal conditions, waste incineration with very high energy recovery is comparable to feedstock recycling.

The study criticises some other studies because they make assumptions which favour other recovery options at the expense of mechanical recycling. Some studies, the review found, make arbitrary and pessimistic assumptions on the potential for primary plastics substitution. Most studies neglect human and ecosystem toxicology. Many studies assume optimal conditions for energy recovery that cannot be applied at a wide scale.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie