‘Trash is cash’: 7 key elements of proposed EU waste shipment reforms

The EU executive wants to ensure Europe deals with its own rubbish, rather than allowing exports – up 75% since 2004 at 33 million tonnes a year – to countries that often lack the capacity to deal with it sustainably. Here are the main points in the proposal to reform the 2006 Waste Shipment Regulation.

Shipping containers stacked at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Under a new Commission proposal, waste shipments would be more tightly regulated. Photo: Niels Wenstedt/BSR Agency/Getty Images Shipping containers stacked at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Under a new Commission proposal, waste shipments would be more tightly regulated. Photo: Niels Wenstedt/BSR Agency/Getty Images

The overarching aim of the proposal is to “boost the circular economy and ensure EU waste stops polluting third countries”, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “It’s about time we learned trash is cash… Landfill and burning has to be made more difficult, and recycling has to be made easier.”

Strict controls on exports to non-OECD countries

Companies will only be able to export waste – of any kind – out of the European Economic Area (EEA) to countries that have signalled a willingness to receive waste, and demonstrated they have the necessary laws in place and facilities to handle the waste in an environmentally friendly way.

The Commission will draw up a list, based on such applications from would-be recipient countries, of those that fulfil these requirements. Applicants will be expected to demonstrate their waste management policy is comparable to that required of EU member states.

OECD countries will also be closely watched

Apparently anticipating a redirection of exports to OECD countries outside Europe, the Commission will investigate any “surge” in exports that might entail serious environmental or public health impacts by seeking information on how waste is being treated in the country in question.

Discounting EEA countries, this would apply only to a dozen or so countries including the UK, US, Turkey, Mexico, Chile and Canada.

Additional reporting for exporters

Irrespective of whether the destination country is on the EU’s approved list, firms that want to export waste to non-OECD countries will have to carry out “independent audits” of their waste treatment facilities to ensure they have the capacity for environmentally sound treatment. This will include checks on compliance with traceability requirements and environmental standards in place in the country concerned.

Why is this necessary when the Commission plans to draw up a list of approved recipient countries? An environment directorate official told ENDS Europe that the responsibility to clean up the waste trade should not fall only on the EU executive and the recipient countries. “It is also a matter for the exporting companies, who will have to demonstrate that what they are shipping is sustainable,” the official said.

Prevent cross-border shipments for landfill or incineration within Europe

Under existing legislation, firms are already prohibited from exporting waste for disposal in landfill or incinerators outside the EEA. The Commission, through its reform proposal, wants to ensure one member state cannot simply export its waste to another for disposal.

“As a principle, we would say there should be no shipment of waste for disposal between one member state and another,” the environment official said. There would be exceptions where there are clear economic or practical reasons why a member state cannot handle its own refuse, for example if the nearest place to incinerate waste that cannot be recycled lies in a neighbouring country.

EU looks to head off anticipated crime wave

Sinkevicius said while presenting the proposal that an estimated 15-30% of Europe’s waste is probably already disposed of illegally in a criminal trade worth €9.5bn, and EU auditors have warned that tighter regulation could lead to a surge in criminal activity. With this in mind, the proposed reform to the waste shipment regulation anticipates setting up a ‘waste shipment enforcement group’ made up of environmental, customs, police and other relevant national inspection authorities,

Moreover, the European Commission will support transnational investigations by EU member states on waste trafficking, with the help of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

The issue will also be addressed in a reform of the Environmental Crime Directive, for which a legislative proposal is expected as part of a broader package of environmental and energy legislation on 14 December. This will provide for “dissuasive” sanctions against criminal waste traffickers, the Commission said.

Legally binding definition of ‘used goods’

Exporters who might seek to get round the export restrictions by labelling waste as ‘used goods’ will have to meet a set of legally binding criteria. These will be developed for a range of commodities of particular concern, such as used vehicles and batteries.

Measures to facilitate recycling within Europe

Along with plans to prevent waste export and unnecessary disposal within Europe is a policy designed to boost recycling capacity and related trade within the EU. This includes digitalisation of administrative procedures that are currently largely paper-based, and fast-track procedures for consignments of waste destined for recovery, especially ‘green-listed’ waste (for which the Commission will establish harmonised contamination threshold levels).

This will be encompassed by a harmonised system of waste classification across Europe, to overcome what the Commission describes as the “current fragmentation” of the market. The EU executive stressed that “the impact assessment underpinning the proposal shows that there should be no major challenges for EU industry to process additional quantities of ferrous metal, non-ferrous metal and paper waste, which represent the highest share of waste currently exported outside the EU”.


Follow-up: Waste Shipment Regulation revision proposal; Commission Q&A

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