UK opposes new EU waste recycling targets in leaked paper

The UK has rubbished the idea of Europe setting new targets for recycling, despite warnings from the EU's environment commissioner that such measures should be non-negotiable.

Goals for recycling household waste are expected to give teeth to an upcoming EU ‘circular economy’ package, but a paper on the UK’s position, seen by the Guardian, argues that any new targets should be put on ice. 

“We feel that a greater emphasis needs to be given to other measures such as voluntary agreements with industry and incentives to reward behavioural changes,” the document says.

Every year, the UK throws away seven million tonnes of food, and millions more tonnes of electrical goods. Two million TVs are thrown away in the UK annually, even though sets are typically made up of 6% metal and 50% glass, which could be recycled.

“By opposing binding targets to cut waste and improve recycling, the Conservative government is encouraging the throwaway society and stifling green investment,” said the Liberal MEP Catherine Bearder.

MEPs will vote on a call for binding waste, food waste and resource efficiency targets at a plenary session in Strasbourg on Thursday.

Last December, the commission put a clutch of proposed 2030 objectives into review, saying it wanted to make them more effective, and less burdensome to business. The original package proposed phasing out landfill waste dumping and a 30% cut in food waste by 2025. By 2030, it envisaged recycling targets of 70% for municipal waste, 90% for paper, 60% for plastics, 80% for wood and 90% for ferrous metal, aluminium and glass.

Many environmentalists fear that these targets could be watered-down or even scrapped in Brussels. But the environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, told the Guardian last week that beefed-up green objectives would be essential to the circular economy package’s success.

“We can’t be more ambitious by lowering our targets,” he said. “We have to maintain those targets. We have to be more ambitious on outlook, results and delivery by member states, and we need to identify the member states that are not achieving those targets.”

Currently, the UK is one of them. According to figures released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last year, England recycled 44.2% of its household waste in 2013, just 0.1% up on the year before, though Wales and Scotland are doing better. EU laws require that all states recycle half of all household waste by 2020.

While a 70% waste reuse target for 2030 should not pose significant problems for a country as developed as the UK, some businesses warn that even the 2020 target is beginning to look like a tall order. The average Briton currently generates around 403kg of household waste per year.

Vella acknowledged that the EU’s 28 members are greening their waste disposal at varying speeds – with countries on the Union’s eastern and southern flanks performing worst. Romania still uses landfill dumps for 99% of waste disposal.

“We have to identify those states that are lagging behind, the reasons why, and we have to be more ambitious by supporting them to achieve the targets – by channelling more funds into projects that will achieve them,” Vella said.

Imposing grand designs for resource efficiency is an easier task in dictatorships such as China, according to the commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans. Nonetheless, he told a Brussels conference last month: “We will come up with plan that bites, has concrete measures, and looks at the full circle of the economy”.

Moves towards a circular economy would halve carbon emissions, create €1.8tn (£1.3tn) in net benefits and a €3,000 increase in household income, according to one recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment and Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit NGO.

The commission is expected to start work on its revised circular economy proposal in the next few weeks.

Arthur Nelsen 

This article first appeared in the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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