Recovery and recycling targets for packaging scaled down

The ambitious ten-year recovery and recycling targets for all packaging materials appear certain to be deleted from the EC Directive on packaging waste following the first serious discussion of the proposal by Environment Ministers on 5 October. A revised proposal subsequently drawn up by the Belgian Presidency would allow Member States more room to determine which materials should be recycled within an overall 50% recovery and 30% recycling rate - but opinions on these ideas are still polarised and an agreement on the Directive is unlikely till next year.

On the table at the Environment Council in October were a 90% "recovery" and a 60% material "recycling" target, to be achieved within ten years. Intermediate targets of 60% recovery and 40% recycling, to be met within five years, had also been proposed (ENDS Report 223, p 39 ).

Presenting the results of Ministers' discussions, Magda de Galan, Belgian Environment Minister and current President of the Council, said they were now heading towards a five-year deadline to achieve a recovery level somewhere below 60%, and without rigid rules on how much of this waste should be reused, recycled or incinerated with energy recovery.

This major climbdown was partly a response to the problems caused by Germany's packaging rules, and partly a concession to Member States which are least advanced on recycling. For the UK, Environment Minister Tim Yeo pushed for a recovery target of 50% - suggesting that the Government was never serious when it asked the packaging industry this summer to develop plans for a recovery rate of 50-75% by 2000 (ENDS Report 224, pp 16-19 ).

The more ambitious ten-year target appears to have been dropped for the time being. However, provision is likely to be made in the Directive for a stricter target to be set later in the light of experience.

The abolition of the separate target for recycling came after a proposal by the Belgian Presidency to establish a rigid hierarchy of waste management options was rejected by most Ministers. The Belgians wanted a strict regime with prevention top of the list, followed by reuse, recycling, incineration with energy recovery and finally landfilling. But Environment Commissioner Ioannis Paleokrassas warned Ministers that he was worried about this approach. Emphasising reuse would shift the focus of the Directive from packaging as waste to packaging as a product, he said.

Despite the Commissioner's view and the lack of support for a recycling target, the Belgians have drawn up a revised proposal which takes into account both reuse and recycling. It suggests an overall recovery rate of 50%, and within this a 30% recycling rate. Different materials could be recovered at different rates providing a minimum of 15% of each packaging material was recycled. The balance could either be reused or incinerated with energy recovery.

The initiative immediately ran into opposition. "Needless to say," Dutch Environment Minister Hans Alders told an FT packaging conference in October, "I am not very happy with these last proposals" - referring to the "very low" targets and the five-year deadline. His Government will not agree to a Directive like this, he warned, because it would take "steps backwards not only for the Netherlands but also for other Member States who have had the guts" to act on packaging waste.

Instead of lowering the targets to appease Member States which have failed to act, the Directive should allow for high targets to be reached over different time periods, or a low minimum target should be set, suggested Mr Alders.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the UK, Greece, Italy and Portugal. They are opposed to even the low material-specific recycling rates and any reference to recycling rates in general.

Although the Belgians are confident of securing agreement on the Directive in December, Trade and Industry Minister Patrick McLoughlin told a House of Commons Committee on 27 October that the gap between Member States is so wide that it is unlikely that a common position will be agreed by December and the proposal will go forward into next year's Greek Presidency.

More progress was made on another major issue. Ministers largely agreed that the draft Directive does not address waste prevention effectively.

The Belgian Presidency, backed by Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, has suggested one option to deal with this problem. This would involve Member States in devising national programmes to reduce secondary and redundant packaging, promote concentrated products, and encourage energy and raw material savings in packaging manufacture. But the idea has run into objections from other Member States on the grounds that it may affect the internal market.

Broad agreement was reached that the EC should try to harmonise the methodology used in carrying out life-cycle assessments of packaging, and a German institute has been employed to report on the issue matter before the end of the year.

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