COP26: a missed opportunity for cutting emissions from the waste sector

As the COP26 in Glasgow comes to a close, circular economy advocates are criticising the lack of focus on the problem of waste, which causes widespread environmental damage and accounts for a significant percentage of global carbon emissions – much of which could be entirely avoided.

On November 6 th , for example, a global alliance of organics recycling bodies called on the COP26 attendees to tackle the issue of food waste, responsible for nearly half of the 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions generated by solid waste; electronics waste groups put out a similar appeal last week in an open letter to COP26 president Alok Sharma.

Unfortunately, despite these requests and the net zero aims of many participating countries, Dr. Adam Read of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) opined ahead of the conference that the resource management industry had been “overlooked and left with no seat at the table” at the annual climate summit.

This is true even among European delegates, in spite of the fact that the European Union positioned itself on the issue within its Fit for 55 package back in July.

Fit for 55 integrates the EU’s Effort Sharing Regulation, which covers waste alongside sectors like agriculture and transport and sets targets for each member state to reduce emissions generated by these industries by 2030. And yet, EU participants in the COP26 have not taken the opportunity to bring up the importance of avoiding the environmental impact of waste in Glasgow by promoting the principles of reduce, re-use, and recycle (in that order).

That decision represents a missed opportunity, since the summit offers an important chance for them to raise awareness among both European consumers and businesses about the importance of a sustainable approach to waste as part of the EU’s circular economy.

Consumers and businesses across Europe, of course, have different options open to them, depending not just on which country but often in which locality they are based in.

Encouraging consumer efforts against waste.

Given that each person in the EU generates half a tonne of waste per year on average (an increase of 18.3% between 2009 and 2019 according to Eurostat), European consumers clearly stand to make substantial gains in reducing waste by changing habits and reusing and recycling products. As the organics recycling sector alluded to in its November 6th statement, food waste is one of the principal ways in which consumers can make a difference, since 60% of it occurs in the home.

While food waste generates 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions globally, the EU estimates that 88 million tonnes of food waste is generated in Europe, equating to 20% of all food produced. Despite the urgency of the situation, the EU’s push to impose “legally binding targets” on food waste won’t take effect until the end of 2023.

Alongside top-down action, however, it is crucial to offer consumers practical solutions, and a number of food companies are stepping into the breach.

Hellman’s has been encouraging customers to hold a weekly ‘leftovers’ day, even deploying a dedicated art installation at the COP26 to illustrate the 117 kilograms of food wasted by the average British family every six months.

Applications such as Too Good To Go or Romania’s bonapp.eco are also encouraging consumers to prevent food waste, offering perishable products at a discounted price.

In addition to the food itself, individual food packaging also represents a recipe for waste. The EU, for its part, threw its energy into a battle on single-use packaging to reduce the number of products ending up in landfills, only to find during the Covid-19 pandemic that single-use packaging came back into vogue for its hygienic benefits.

Lawmakers have other options to encourage packaging waste reduction, such as cash- back schemes for customers who collect and return bottles and cans, and in the private sector, ‘refill shops’ are offering conscientious consumers the option of filling empty containers rather than buying new ones.

Businesses require a regulatory leg up.

While consumers have a great deal of latitude to make these types of individual choices, businesses – and especially small- and medium-sizes companies operating within tight margins – need direct regulatory support and clear guidance from their national and local governments, as well as from the EU.

The current mishmash of legislation across Europe has real-world implications for firms operating across the theoretically ‘single’ market, creating uncertainty about concepts as fundamental as the definition of ‘waste’ in a commercial context.

This confusion, for example, makes it overly complicated for companies to reuse industrial packaging such as steel and plastic drums, despite the fact it is a perfectly viable and far more sustainable option in many cases. Instead, across most of Europe, perfectly good industrial packaging is often written off as waste and sold off as scrap.

Reconditioning packaging is a key peg in the circular economy, ensuring, for example, that millions of drums and IBCs (intermediate bulk containers) used in industrial packaging can be collected and cleaned rather than melted down or simply thrown away. That, in turn, saves on the energy required to produce new products or even recycle used ones – reflecting the same spirit which drives the EU’s ‘right to repair’ laws for electronic goods.

Sadly, the EU’s Waste Shipments Regulation, which is currently under review, might streamline national laws surrounding these types of industrial packaging on paper, but has not stopped different EU countries and localities from interpreting this EU-wide law in their own divergent ways since its introduction in 1993. This, in turn, makes it near impossible for reuse to fulfil its ecological potential, as too much of this packaging gets written off as ‘waste”.

While the handling of these types of products might not be the most attention-grabbing facet of the circular economy, the EU’s handling of its raw materials crisis will have outsized benefits – or drawbacks – for the net-zero Europe the Commission hopes to build between now and 2050.

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor and Brussels correspondent of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

In October 2021 POLITICO described Gary as "the busiest man in Brussels!"

He is a of member the Chartered Institute of Journalists, a professional association for journalists, the senior such body in the UK, and the oldest in the world having been founded in October 1884

Gary's most recent book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

https://www.amazon.co.uk/WANTE...

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