EU ministers move on waste and water quality

Environment ministers reached political agreements on important Directives covering waste, water quality and exports of mercury when they met in Luxembourg on 28 June.

A key item on the Environment Council’s agenda was the proposals for revising the waste framework Directive. Ministers endorsed the European Commission’s original proposals for an energy efficiency threshold that would decide whether a municipal waste incinerator is classified as a recovery or disposal operation. But they added provisions that would allow derogations to take account of local climatic conditions and would give incinerators in warmer southern parts of the EU greater leeway in meeting the threshold. The derogations would be decided by EU committee procedure.

Following pressure from countries bordering Germany, ministers agreed that countries could block waste imports bound for recovery if they could prove that the imports would displace domestic waste to landfill, or to treatment operations that do not comply with national waste management plans.

The five-tier waste hierarchy was confirmed as a "guiding principle" rather than a "general rule" and specific waste streams would not need to conform to the hierarchy "where this is justified by life-cycle thinking on the overall impacts of the generation and management of such waste".

Environmental groups criticised the decision to reclassify efficient incinerators as recovery operations and the Council’s failure to even consider the recycling and waste prevention targets proposed by the European Parliament in its first reading in February (ENDS Report 386, p 53 ).

The plastics and automotive industries welcomed the agreed text’s broad definition of recycling, which includes feedstock recycling as well as mechanical recycling. This will allow the conversion of plastics into chemical feedstocks - but not fuels - to count as recycling.

  • Priority substances: Ministers also reached political agreement on a Directive that sets standards for hazardous ‘priority substances’ in surface waters.

    The Directive sets environmental quality standards (EQSs) for 33 substances, the 12 most hazardous of which are also designated ‘priority hazardous substances’.

    The substances and limits are the same as those proposed last year (ENDS Report 379, p 48 ). But member states have been given the option to set EQSs for sediments or wildlife instead of for water.

    The option could be used for any priority substance, but the limits adopted would have to give "at least the same level of protection" as the limits for waters. Prescribed limits for mercury, hexachlorobenzene and hexachlorobutadiene in prey species remain in the Directive.

    Another change has been in the "areas of transitional exceedance" where discharges enter water bodies. This terminology has now been dropped in favour of the more familiar ‘mixing zones’ and the requirements have been relaxed considerably.

    EQSs would not need to be met in mixing zones, but these areas would have to be "restricted to the proximity of the discharge" and "proportionate". But ministers dropped the requirement to progressively reduce the extent of such zones.

    Proposals by the European Parliament to add a further 28 compounds to the list of priority substances have also been scrapped (see ENDS Report 389, p 50).

  • Ban on mercury exports: Ministers accepted the draft EU Regulation’s proposal to ban exports of metallic mercury from 1 July 2011, and to require all mercury waste produced after that date to be safely stored underground (ENDS Report 382, p 49 ). But they rejected calls to extend the ban to mercury compounds and mercury-containing products whose sale is forbidden in the EU, as proposed by the European Parliament’s first reading in June.

    Storage could only occur after environmental standards have been drawn up by the Commission and accepted by a committee of member state representatives.

  • CO2 from cars: Legislation for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from cars to 120g/km by 2012 should be proposed by the end of this year, said the council, rather than mid-2008 as proposed in the Commission’s Communication earlier this year (ENDS Report 385, p 51 ). By the same deadline, the Commission should issue proposals "to improve the effectiveness" of the Directive on fuel efficiency labelling for cars.
  • Review of the EUETS: By the end of 2007 the Commission is due to issue proposals for revising the EU emissions trading scheme from the beginning of its third phase in 2013. Ministers urged the Commission to "seriously consider" increasing the level of allowance auctioning required under the scheme either by establishing a minimum rate of auctioning or a "mandatory uniform rate". As expected, it also called for harmonised methods for setting national emission caps.

    Greenpeace had urged the Council to call for all allowances to be auctioned and for an emissions cap in line with a 30% cut in emissions by 2020. It also wants land use, land-use change and forestry activities excluded from the scheme, but the Council wants the Commission to consider their inclusion, as well as surface transport.

    The Council also warned that "further decisive action is needed" to implement the Commission’s sixth environment action programme, in particular to stem the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and waste generation (ENDS Report 388, p 47 ). It urged the Commission to table new policies to promote sustainable consumption and production and to provide an eco-innovation strategy early in 2008 to "provide industry with environmental legislation setting ambitious and realistic standards".

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