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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Don't waste waste!

Visit to UMICORE precious metal recycling plant and INDAVER sorting plant

Hoboken & Willebroeck, 19 January 2011

First I'd like to say thanks to Marc and Ronnie for letting us use their facilities today and for all of their help in making today's event happen. And thanks to UMICORE for helping me get rid of my old mobile phone!

It is not by chance that we chose to bring everyone here. The work that you do here shows us all how we can start looking at waste differently.

There is a division in Europe today; a division between those who see waste as a problem and those who see it as a resource.

The ones who see it as a problem are still trying to bury or burn it; the others who have understood its inherent value, are sorting it and treating it properly and in turn see rising demand for waste providing financial returns.

This isn't just my opinion. This is the basic finding of the Progress Report on the EU Thematic Strategy on Waste which was adopted by the Commission just a couple of hours ago, and which I will present you highlights from in a few minutes.

Today's event is about showing us how waste can turn itself from a problem to a whole range of solutions:

  • Solutions to reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions;

  • Solutions to generating energy;

  • Solutions to enriching soil;

  • Solutions to reducing our dependency on imported raw materials;

Each separate waste stream needs to be dealt with the right way, but there is a set of fundamental principles that applies to them all. These were clearly set out for all in the EU’s Waste Framework Directive, which actually came into full force just one month ago.

Most important among these is the waste hierarchy – our priority list for waste action with:

  • Prevention firmly at the top, followed by…

  • Reuse

  • Recyling

  • Energy recovery

  • Disposal

The Directive also set targets, for example for 50% recycling of municipal waste and 70% of construction waste by 2020, whilst leaving Member States free to decide how they are going to achieve them in their waste management plans.

We are starting to receive the waste management plans from Member States, setting out how each of them intends to meet these targets. It will be interesting to read these in full knowledge of the very different waste challenges that each Member State faces and the common targets that they must aim for.

Last night I had to answer questions about the catastrophic waste situation in Campania in the Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Just as we have been in Campania, we will continue to be strict on infringements and to go to Court where necessary. But I also intend to offer whatever help we can to Member States to move up that hierarchy. The targets are so eminently achievable, and some have already got there.

We are at Hoboken today because Electrical and Electronic Waste deserves specific attention: why?

First - Because the mobile phone in your pocket has within it many precious substances that would have to be sourced through more primary extraction if we didn’t recover them. 40 mobile phones contain about one gram of gold. You would have to move and treat on average one tonne of ore, often using toxic substances such as cyanide, to get the same amount from primary extraction;

Second - Because Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (or “WEEE”) is the fastest growing waste stream – estimated to grow to about 12 million tones by 2020. It now seems normal to replace your phone every couple of years. And

Third - Because many substances in WEEE are dangerous or even deadly and must be treated properly.

It is because the Commission understands just how important this stream is that it has proposed to revise the WEEE Directive; to upgrade its targets to an 85% collection rate, and to beef up producer responsibility rules. This will be voted on in the European Parliament plenary two weeks from now (on 2nd February) and then be further debated by Member States in Council. We have set the bar at an ambitious, but realistic level – the potential benefits of proper WEEE recycling are too great to allow these ambition levels to be compromised.

But we also understand that legislation is not enough on its own to get the recycling rates for WEEE up from the levels you can see on this graph:

  • We also need effective collection systems;

  • We need constantly improving technologies;

  • We need investment in the necessary infrastructure;

  • We need to “eco-design” products so they are easily recyclable.

  • We need to reduce, as far as we can, the number of dangerous substances used in producing electrical and electronic equipment, (as we do now through REACH and Restriction of Hazardous Substances).

  • And we need to stop illegal shipments of waste to parts of the world where they are treated in ways that are both a danger to the environment and to the people who have to handle them.

The Report on the Waste Thematic Strategy

Today we are publishing our overview of the state of progress of waste treatment in the European Union - the report on the Waste Thematic Strategy. It is a good news story: we are going in the right direction and quite fast. But I know that good news doesn’t sell newspapers, so you will also be reassured to know that there is another story too, about how far we still have to go to becoming a true recycling society.

This is particularly true when it comes to waste prevention - one of the main objectives of the Thematic Strategy adopted in 2005.

We have not managed to reduce the total amount of waste generated, although in most countries it has grown slowly. The most recent data does actually show a moderate decrease, but this seems likely to have more to do with the economic crisis.

Despite this, we can see that there has a been a kind of 'decoupling' between waste generation and GDP growth, which is encouraging even if it is hard to link it with specific policies.

Municipal waste is a more understandable good news story. It looks as though its production is likely to become more stable over the next ten years – even though global household consumption is set to increase by more than 15% during the same period. At the Indaver plant later we will learn more about the practical challenges of dealing with municipal waste recycling in detail.

Municipal waste recycling ranges from just a few percent to the near maximum feasible level of 70%.

The same goes for landfilling, which has nearly disappeared in some Member States although others are still landfilling more than 90% of their waste.

Clearly the best performing Member States can teach us a lot. They are the ones who have put into place a consistent strategy, which mixes legal instruments, economic instruments and public awareness.

For instance, it is easy to link landfill rates with landfill taxes, or landfill bans as applied in Germany or Austria. It is also clear that strong producer responsibility works; namely putting in place schemes where industry and public authorities think about what will happen to products at the end of their life even before they start their life.

So whilst some Member States have already met and long passed the minimum EU recycling targets; others are still struggling to meet the minimum targets. Whilst some have moved up the waste hierarchy on all its levels, others are still concentrating nearly all their activities at the bottom.

The report shows that we must keep pushing waste legislation. And legislation is only useful if it is properly implemented. Red sludge in Hungary, Dioxins in Germany, the export of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast… all these examples might have been prevented through full and effective implementation of EU legislation.

Member States have first responsibility here. There is no EU inspection and enforcement body, but the Commission does – and will continue - to support Member States' enforcement. There are plenty of examples in the report of how we have done exactly that. These include awareness events in the MS, guidelines on inspection and enforcement and, when required, infringement procedures against those who don't apply the legislation properly.

Some 20% of infringement cases are related to waste management. These fall mostly into 3 areas:

Failure to apply the waste framework Directive: for example inadequate infrastructures and illegal dumping

The Landfill Directive: it is estimated that there are still thousands of illegal landfills

Waste shipment regulation: one out of four waste shipments is illegal. The Main problem being illegal exports of WEEE and end-of life vehicles.

Future Trends

What about the future? We must see our future waste policy in the context of growing pressures on our resources. As I said at the beginning there is a division between those who see waste as a problem, and those who see it as a resource. As our resources need to grow more acutely, it will be the latter that get the competitive advantage. That is why we all have an interest in being even more ambitious with our waste legislation.

We believe that future targets should be reviewed in the light of the increasing scarcity and value of resources. But they should also reflect the environmental and health impacts of our use of different resources. Sometimes these can be surprising.

For example on this graph produced by the United Nations Environment Programme, we can see that mining and extraction counts for a huge amount of the resources we use by mass, but in the two right hand columns their health and environmental impacts are relatively lower. But it is also clear that from a health perspective we must take plastics (in pink), coal (in light blue) and metals (in green) very seriously. And in terms of environmental impacts the effects of food production (in orange and red in the column on the right) are enormous. When you consider that we throw away about one-third of the food that we buy we have important progress to make at the top of the hierarchy: in preventing food waste.

Our priorities must be guided by targeting where our resource use has the greatest impact on the environmental and on our health.

Resource use and waste management can also have a huge impact on green house gas emissions. For example recycling aluminium takes 95% less energy than extracting and processing it.

Waste itself produces green house gas emissions – methane for example is many times stronger than CO2. Here we are making good progress. Emissions have already decreased significantly mainly due to the landfill Directive and the better management it has induced.

Full implementation of existing waste legislation would bring additional important further reductions in GHG emissions. Better waste management, - reducing landfills, increasing recycling and reducing our dependence on extraction - could deliver between 19 and 31% of our objectives for reducing CO2 emissions by 2020.

Reducing our dependence on extraction also means reducing our dependence on external source of resources. Another trend shown by the report is the increased globalization of resource, product and waste flows:

Europe imports six times more raw materials than we export. The environmental impacts of our consumption and production are increasingly exported to other parts of the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I said at the beginning that this is a good news story. When it comes to waste, the graphs really are pointing the right way. We have made major improvements in the last 10 years; but we still have a long way to go. If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it is that the targets we are putting in our European waste legislation really are achievable. But they are not achievable through legislation alone.

What will make us achieve them, and push on even further, is not only enforcement and infringements; but also a helping hand. The progress report adopted today allows us to identify particular problems in particular Member States: many of them shared. We must help each other in sharing the solutions. These solutions will involve infrastructure investments, technological developments, and innovation in business models and systems.

We will continue to provide financing. Through the Structural and Cohesion Funds we are already providing much support for infrastructure. Through the research framework programme we are developing new waste treatment technologies. Through the Life and CIP programmes we are bringing technologies closer to the market.

Recently we also announced that we would bring relevant stakeholders together in an innovation partnership on raw materials, with an important recycling component. This will identify and tackle the main innovation bottlenecks for recycling.

All of this will help. But what will really make the change is when we start to view waste not as a burden on our economy, but as part of it, and as a resource. That is why we see waste as an important element of our resource efficiency strategy.

The integration of environmental policy more generally into our mainstream economic thinking – and thereby into the wider gamut of our sectoral policies – was signalled by the inclusion of resource efficiency as one of the flagships of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

Next week on 26 January the Commission will adopt its flagship communication on resource efficiency, and on the same day it will adopt its revised raw materials initiative.

Waste is truly on the agenda.

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