7 April 2022

Urgent need to support European market for recyclable materials, says EEA


The growth of non-hazardous recoverable waste trade within the European market represents an opportunity for the circular economy, says the EU Environment Agency. The sector is already worth 12 billion but can grow further by creating new opportunities and improving the quality of recycling

by Matteo Cavallito


The cross-border trade of recyclable waste “offers opportunities to find the best available treatment options, allowing good-quality secondary raw materials to be produced and respecting the principles of a circular economy”. It would also feed a largely unexplored market given that today “more than 90% of waste generated in the EU is treated in the country in which it was generated”, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said.

In a statement released in recent weeks, in particular, the Copenhagen-based body suggests the need to reform the EU regulation on waste product shipments. The rule is basically based on the so-called proximity principle that requires waste to be treated in the countries where it was created. However, in this sense, “the non-hazardous, recyclable waste should be considered an exception.”

Waste shipments market fuels economies of scale for recycling

The analysis comes while EU is currently reviewing its 2006 Waste Shipment Regulation to adapt the rules to the needs of circular economy. The circular approach is based on the design of a perpetual life cycle of products (which can be recovered by recycling their components) that can be applied almost everywhere, from industrial production to soil management and agricultural processes. Maximizing the value of recycling activities results in reduced resource extraction which benefits both the climate mitigation and the environment.

“Shipments of non-hazardous waste for recycling purposes could be key to achieving this,” the statement says. “Especially for improving the secondary raw material markets, which in turn play a key role in meeting the EU’s raw material demands through secondary material sources.

Favoring shipments within the single market, the agency says, can lead to the development of economies of scale. That is, a reduction in the cost of waste treatment, which in turn affects the price of secondary raw materials. Finally, this could create new opportunities for the development of high-quality recycling plants and economically competitive business models.

A €12 bn growing market

But what would a fully exploited circular market be worth? It’s not easy to make estimates but the signals collected so far are promising. In the last 15 years, the share of non-hazardous recoverable waste exported from EU countries within the borders of the Union has increased from 42 million tons in 2004, or 5.4% of the total, to 49.9 in 2018, equal to 6.1%. In 2019, the value of these shipments in the European Union reached 12.2 billion euros.

This figure shows the presence of “significant opportunities in these markets, especially if they are supported by measures to increase the price competitiveness of secondary materials.”

In any case, the redesign of activities in a circular way offers excellent opportunities for all economic sectors. For the Italian companies, says the latest study by Energy & Strategy, a multi-disciplinary research center of the School of Management of Politecnico di Milano, the adoption of circular strategies could generate a annual economic potential of nearly 100 billion euros.

Better recycling generates higher profits on the market

The starting point for the development of a circular waste market at the European level, the Agency concludes, is the improvement of the national waste product management system. This tool, in fact, “is a critical determinant of the value of waste shipments.”

Moreover, “Extensive separate collection and optimal sorting of waste into different quality grades result in large quantities of relatively homogeneous waste material, which can be traded at higher prices.” While, “mixed waste, where high-quality materials are mixed with low-quality materials, is generally traded at lower prices.”