Action’s needed, but talk is almost all there is

Environment Committee members are demanding swift action on transforming the European economy into a circular one, and a little step forward has been made. However, is the EU spending its money wisely when it comes to funding the technology that will benefit the waste and recycling sector?

By Lydia Heida

The debate was still civilised, but cold phrases were thrown out, such as “taking a nosedive” and “I’m becoming allergic [to] the words ‘more ambitious’”, the latter by Jyrki Katainen, EU vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness. On 16 March, Katainen attended a meeting of the Environment Committee for an exchange of views about the circular economy action plan.

In his 15-minute speech, Katainen uttered every platitude that goes around when it comes to the circular economy. It was about “delivering jobs and growth” and “turning challenges into drivers for a modern economy”. Nothing was said about any actual action – well, apart from an upcoming discussion in the European Commission about revising the Fertilizers Regulation.

Trash is cash

Committee member Julie Girling, a British Conservative MEP, took a swing at Katainen by stating that “we are very used to hearing and talking about the circular economy, but we need to get down to reality”. She insisted that the market for secondary raw materials needs to be boosted: “Mr Timmermans said ‘trash is cash’, but at the moment it is not. Trash is a financial liability. And there is nothing in your proposal to fix this in the short or medium term.”

Other committee members emphasised that they already had expected a more concrete action plan, food waste and marine litter were named as top priorities and basically all other current problems were mentioned: the lack of data, trade barriers and member states lagging behind with recycling.

Remove obstacles

But talk about the action plan will be all there is for the coming months, since first several committees and councils are given the opportunity to comment on the action plan. However, there is some light on the horizon. In March, the Netherlands, France, Flanders and the UK signed a deal to facilitate the trade of raw materials obtained from waste – the Green Deal for a North Sea Resources Roundabout.

Strengthening the circular economy is high on the Netherlands’ agenda during its EU presidency. This deal will address the different ways countries view residual materials. Representatives from the participating countries are working on several cases in their bid to remove obstacles to international trade.

For example, Dutch company Inashco has developed technology to recover tiny pieces of aluminium, lead, zinc, silver and gold from bottom ash. In future, it should become easier for a waste company, such as British Ballast Phoenix, to export its remaining ash from the UK to the Netherlands for processing.

Metal theft

The EU has identified innovation as one of the ways to boost the economy and it will be interesting to check whether projects are funded that are indeed commercialised. Over the past years, there has been a lot to do about metal theft from shipping containers.

ISOTRACK, a European consortium with partners from the UK, Slovenia, France, Norway and Finland, has developed a container door that houses tracking and sensing electronics, to prevent tampering or theft. The project was backed by €2.2 million of funding secured by Pera Technology through the EU Seventh Framework Programme for its first phase (2008-2011).

This money was used to develop a prototype of the device. The project was supposed to receive another €733,000 in 2013 from the EU to take the device to market reality. This should have included a test of the ISOTRACK system by fitting it to 100 containers in 2014.

Not tested

“But this never happened,” says Antanas Bernikas, container control manager of Finnish shipping specialist Containerships, which should have tested these containers. “We received one container, which we took on several round trips. The system was also not tested on a full scale with all the sensors operating. The only recorded data was the location of the container.”

The project ended in 2014 and to date no commercialisation has been achieved. Douglas Bryce, director of UK-based TTS Shipping and co-ordinator of ISOTRACK II, claims to be negotiating with two parties to take it to market. When will this happen? “At this early stage in our discussions, it is impossible to say,” he said.

This column can also be read here:

Action’s needed, but talk is almost all there is

Published: April 2016 in Recycling & Waste World.

From April 2015 to September 2017, I wrote a monthly column about Europe’s waste and recycling sectors for Recycling & Waste World (UK). I discovered, among others, that the EU is spending only a sliver of their multi-billion euro budget on recycling projects. This stands in sharp contrast to ambitious plans of creating a circular economy in the EU, which requires much more funding.


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