It is only natural for a person to look at their life as being linear – from its beginning, to its end. What we imagine may have come before or may happen afterwards is a spiritual question or a matter of one’s beliefs. This linear approach, however, is increasingly becoming a problem when it comes to production and consumption. Looking at how the world’s population is growing – and, as a consequence, how consumption is increasing and supplies of raw materials are shrinking – there really is only one solution for the future: to have a genuine closed loop economy. All products and raw materials must be systematically recovered and reused in the future. If we don’t do this, we will find ourselves facing an increasing number of catastrophic environmental problems and economic upheavals as well as armed conflicts as countries seek access to raw materials. Three specific measures are needed to turn our linear system into a closed loop economy and prevent such a dire outcome.
The EU’s Ecodesign Directive primarily focuses on energy efficiency levels of household appliances and other consumer goods. It has set out specific requirements for products by looking at the values that can be measured and then setting limits for these.
At the same time, the Directive stipulates what product information manufacturers must pass on to consumers (on product labels, product information sheets and on the internet). If the challenges of a modern recycling economy are to be met, it is essential that all aspects of raw material efficiency are also included in the Ecodesign Directive.
The wake-up call came from China at the beginning of 2018. The Environment Ministry in Beijing had forewarned the World Trade Organisation back in 2017 that it was intending to gradually introduce a ban on imports of 24 different types of unsorted waste (including plastic waste, WEEE and even old paper) from the beginning of 2018. China’s decision to take this step is forcing politicians and businesses across Europe and other parts of the world to act.
Germany alone has already shipped 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste to China over the years – more than half of the total volume generated in Germany. At the same time, German politicians have set the course for more materials recycling. The current materials recycling rate for plastic waste lies at 36% and this should have increased to 63% by 2022. Furthermore, the European Union is working on a new circular economy package that should considerably raise material recycling rates across all member states.
Both Germany and Europe need to invest more money in their sorting and recycling processes to improve the quality of the raw materials they recover. This is the only way for recycled raw materials to become an attractive alternative for manufacturers – both from point of view of price and quality. Public authorities should also move this issue forward by promoting green purchasing in their tenders (Green Public Procurement). It will also reduce economic and political dependency on the countries extracting and exporting the so-called primary raw materials. REMONDIS is already investing in new sorting and recycling facilities. In 2018, for example, it will be commissioning a new composting plant with a biogas production facility and additional extruder lines for producing plastic pellets as well as plastic film from recycled film at its Lippe Plant in the German city of Lünen – Europe’s largest industrial recycling centre.
More money needs to be invested across Europe to improve both sorting processes and the quality of recycled materials
“It makes sense to look at the amount of resources needed to manufacture a product and then weigh this against the actual benefits of the product.” This was a comment made in the BDI’s [The Federation of German Industries] publication, “Fact check: raw material efficiency”. As a general rule, it is not possible to simply reduce the volumes of raw mater-ials needed in production processes as these depend on the product’s future application, levels of technical development and regulatory standards. Global exports make up 46% of all sales generated by the German industrial sector. At the same time, almost 86% of the raw materials they need to manufacture their products have to be imported from abroad. A mere 14% of their raw material requirements currently come from the recycling sector. There is, therefore, a great opportunity here to create a genuine win-win situation. Using high quality recycled materials sourced from local volumes of waste would make it easier for manufacturers to get hold of the supplies they need and reduce their dependency on the volatile international raw material markets.
Politicians need to create positive incentives to encourage manufacturers to use more recycled raw materials.
Having said this, however, producers are still reluctant to use recycled raw materials – a reluctance that it difficult to understand considering the fact that such materials are superior to their primary counterparts in so many different ways. Politicians need to introduce incentive schemes to ensure more recycled materials are used in the future and, as a result, strengthen the local market for sustainable recycled substances. Various different approaches are possible here. One way, the BDI writes, could be to impose taxes on the use of raw materials but this might put local companies at a disadvantage (as foreign businesses would have a greater competitive edge) and force German firms to move their production operations abroad. It is also unlikely that this would have a positive impact on global resource efficiency.
The opposite approach – reducing taxes for industrial businesses that use recycled raw materials from European sources – could indeed act as an incentive and also increase their competitive position. Strengthening take-back schemes, licence fees and other control instruments are other possibil-ities. No matter which route politicians decide to take, one side-effect of promoting recycled raw materials will be to strengthen the European waste management and recycling industry – an industry that already provides 250,000 jobs in Germany alone and is one of the biggest drivers of growth in Europe today.