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MEP Gerbrandy: ‘Recycling equals economy’

Europe – ‘We need a wake-up call,’ insists Ton Emans, president of Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE). If Europeans continued to consume more than 1.2 million tonnes of plastics every week, the continent would be facing the prospect of 30.6 million tonnes of waste plastics by 2020, he forecasted at the association’€™s annual meeting held on November 22 in Amsterdam.

PRE’s president argued that mechanical recycling rates in Europe were ‘far too low’. With 10 million tonnes of plastic waste going to landfill and a further 8.7 million tonnes to energy recovery, only around 6 million tonnes of Europe’s plastic waste total of approximately 25 million tonnes was collected for recycling. These proportions were ‘unacceptable’, Emans contended.

He suggested the picture was worsened by rising exports. ‘Every day, 800 containers of plastic waste leave European ports so the material can be shipped overseas – mainly to Asia,’ Emans noted, identifying the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany as the three biggest exporters. ‘As a result, we struggle to get our hands on feedstock. Export is not fair, not safe and not sustainable.’

PRE would like to see a higher quality of incoming waste but ‘sadly this threshold is set by the contractors’, Emans added. Also, the position of recycled plastics compared to virgin plastics desperately needed to be improved. ‘The 4% share of recycled plastics on the European market would only cover three weeks of demand,’ PRE’s president pointed out.

‘Tear down barriers’

The way out was to set higher targets – ‘for all plastics and for all European countries’ – while reducing VAT on recycled content would ‘really help boost the industry’, regardless of the poor economic conditions. Emans explained: ‘We cannot afford to keep taking short-term actions; they are not sustainable in the long run. We need to look further; we need to tear down the barriers for use of recycled plastics.’

Increasing the recycled plastics share to 24% by 2020 would create some 12 000 jobs and represent nearly 15 million tonnes of input for recycling across Europe. However, Emans offered a word of warning about biodegradables. ‘Looks can be deceiving,’ he said. ‘If the rise in this type of plastic continues, there will be a hugely negative impact on the quality of plastics in our waste stream.’

‘A clever person solves a problem – a wise person avoids it.’

Joan Marc Simon of Zero Waste Europe added: ‘We are in favour of good plastics – plastics that can be reused. Not bad plastics, like Styrofoam, that harm the reputation of plastics.’ He quoted Albert Einstein, telling the audience: ‘A clever person solves a problem – a wise person avoids it.’ In terms of plastics recycling and resource efficiency, ‘closing the circle is not enough’, Simon commented. ‘We need to make it smaller. Even if you recycle 100% of plastics, there is still a huge amount of material created.’

Citing Eurostat data, he added: ‘We are stuck; recycling rates are not going up while they should. Luckily, the waste volume is going down – but only because of the (economic) crisis.’ This presents an issue because, ultimately, ‘we need to stop superfluous waste’. Together with optimised separate collection, this was the key, he said.

‘The beast of sustainability’

As Member of the European Parliament Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy saw it, there were two attitudes that influence recycling. ‘Poland, for example, is fighting for its coal industry, rebelling against what it refers to as the beast of sustainability – which it sees as a threat,’ he pointed out.

‘On the other side, we have those who understand that the world is changing rapidly – minute by minute. Things do not always stay the same; you have to seize opportunities.’ And he underlined: ‘I am sure that the latter attitude will win.’ The numbers of people with middle incomes and therefore consumption would ‘explode’ in the coming years.

‘It’s the economy, stupid!’

Despite all this, sustainability was still seen as part of an ‘environmental agenda’, the MEP complained. ‘If you introduce the topic, they say nearly immediately ”We don’t have time to talk about this right now”. They are so busy thinking about the economy that they don’t see that recycling equals economy.’

Gerbrandy quoted former US president Bill Clinton, saying: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ Adopting green standards might also save the world at some point, but the term ‘green economy’ was first and foremost ‘about ambition, products and resources’, the MEP stressed. ‘If sustainability keeps being categorised under ”environmental discussion” that would be a true danger to our economy.’

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