MEPs have voted in favour of legally binding recycling targets for member states, following a vote put to the European Parliament on 9 July, despite opposition by the UK Government.

By 2025, landfilling of recyclable materials will be banned and by 2030, EU member states will have to recycle 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging waste. The recommendations are likely to be included in the European Commission’s circular economy package which is expected later this year.

With 394 MEPs voting in favour of the proposals, 197 against and 82 abstentions, not everyone agrees that these measures are the best method of achieving changes to attitudes and behaviours when it comes to recycling. None more so than the UK Government. A leaked paper on the UK’s position stated that “greater emphasis needs to be given to other measures such as voluntary agreements with industry and incentives to reward behavioural changes.”

However, with the UK population throwing away seven million tonnes of food and millions more tonnes of electrical goods each year, others have argued that the UK position is one that is counter-productive and encouraging of a “throwaway society”.

Others worry that these targets could be reduced or even scrapped prior to the circular economy package being implemented. However Karmenu Vella, environment commissioner, has perhaps eased these concerns by confirming only a week before the vote that “we can’t be more ambitious by lowering our targets. We have to maintain those targets. We have to be more ambitious on outlook, results and delivery by member states, and we need to identify the member states that are not achieving those targets.”

EU laws currently require that all member states recycle half of all household waste by the year 2020. In 2013, England recycled 44.2% of its household waste, a 0.1% increase on the year before. Wales and Scotland are doing better; however there is clearly work to be done if the 2020 target is to be met.

 The objective of the EU is to halve carbon emissions and steer Europe toward a more circular economy. According to reports, this approach could create GBP 1.3 trillion in net benefits. In commenting upon the possibility of legally binding targets, Defra expressed concerns that the stringent targeted approach (and corresponding landfill restrictions) would impose additional costs on SMEs. The conclusion, at the time, was that Defra would not support the targets unless the economic and environmental benefits exceeded the costs involved. Certainly, if this proposal is to succeed, Government support will be key as will industry and public engagement.

Although ambitious, the general consensus is that these targets are attainable with some Councils in Europe already reaching 70% recycling statistics.

There will be industry specific concerns, for example:-

  • In construction, can waste be designed out at the stage of project inception?
  • In the electrical goods sector, how will businesses evaluate the new impetus to encourage the reuse of products with the clear commercial advantages of selling newer models?

If these new measures are enacted, companies will have to balance their commercial aims with the need to meet this latest environmental requirement. With the targeted approach almost certain to be introduced, businesses would be wise to consider now how they will begin to modify their practices to meet the new, more stringent expectations.