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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Parliamentary Power


Guest column in the CIWM Journal, July 2009

Landfilling may be down across Europe, but the waste mountain keeps on growing.  Kathryn Sheridan looks at how the new-look European Parliament might make a difference

Summer in Brussels is always a quiet time and this year more so than most. While only 34.5 percent of Britons voted in the European Parliament elections (against a European average turnout of 43 percent), the prospect of a new Parliament followed by a new European Commission has caused a major lull in policymaking throughout 2009. Whether the changes lead to a fresh era in environmental policy remains to be seen, particularly given the new economic reality.

One influential factor will be the Swedish presidency of the EU, which it takes over this month. Traditionally one of the more switched-on presidencies for sustainability, the last time the Swedes had the reins, in 2001, the EU adopted its Sustainable Development Strategy in Gothenburg, putting sustainability at the heart of policymaking in all areas. While it is difficult to judge the success of this strategy in the years that followed, the latest Swedish presidency plans to address how Europe can develop into an “eco-efficient economy” at the environment, energy and competitiveness councils. However, Sweden is already bracing itself for a bumpy ride and a crisis presidency. Will it have the political power to persuade other governments to restructure to embrace challenges like climate change and a low carbon economy?

Not only is the Parliament set to change, but a new European Commission will start work some months later. Green groups have been fairly unflattering about the achievements of the current Commission, with Green 10, a coalition of NGOs, awarding it just 4.4 out of 10 on its scorecard. One of the failings noted was the Commission’s inability to propose sustainable economic policies. On natural resources it awarded only three out of 10, saying the Commission’s proposals on waste prevention and treatment were “…unhelpful, weakening the principle of prevention first, followed by re-use and material recycling”.

In its lessons for the next Commission, Green 10 suggests that next year’s planned reviews of the Thematic Strategies on Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and on Waste Prevention and Recycling should lead to the setting of targets to reduce absolute levels of resource use and to prioritise EU policy funding for reducing and recycling waste. It also called for a proposal for a Biowaste Directive and to treat the 2012 review of the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plans as an opportunity to incorporate sustainability into industry policy, among other issues.

Not everything has ground to a halt over these few last weeks and months. The European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen has published, in a recent report, that the EU Landfill Directive has resulted in a shift from landfilling to what it calls “better waste management” of biodegradable municipal waste. After 10 years since the adoption of the Directive, the report Diverting Waste From Landfill analysed waste management practices in a number of member states and found that the Directive’s targets had pushed governments and the European Commission to measure progress, and also that flexibility had been an important element of the Directive as it had allowed member states to try out alternative policies with regional tweaks where necessary and to basically “learn” by “doing”.

Making An Impact

In countries that had not already started to move away from landfill, the Directive has had the strongest impact, according to the EEA. Countries like Estonia, Italy and Hungary, which had landfilling rates of 75 percent or more in 1995, saw the most progress of the countries surveyed. Waste is shifting from landfill with the closure of “dumpsites and other low standard sites” and more landfills are likely to be closed after the 16 July 2009 deadline when they will all require permits. However, overall, according to the EEA “…there is no evidence that the Landfill Directive has lessened municipal waste generation”. Policy still seems to have a limited impact on society’s desire to produce, consume and dump waste. Consumption is a political hot potato, but more needs to be done to address the issue of waste reduction. The report suggests the current landfill capacity in most member states is “sufficient for many years to come,” which shows the importance of targets.

A variety of ways to increase the cost of landfilling have been tried out with, for example, gate fees in Estonia rising 700 percent between 1996 and 2006; and landfill taxes being introduced in Estonia, Finland, the Flemish Region of Belgium and Italy. To be effective the report concludes that landfill taxes should be “relatively high”. In many of the countries studied, composting has increased significantly, although the demand for compost products is mixed. In Finland and Hungary compost apparently has an image problem and communications campaigns and stakeholder dialogue are recommended.

The report also looks at the interplay between the Landfill Directive and other legislation, such as the Packaging Directive and the Renewable Energy Directive, as well as the EU Waste Incineration Directive. Incineration with energy recovery is set to feature highly on the waste agenda as EU targets for renewable energy have to be met by 2010. In Germany the landfill ban has been deemed a success. The report aims to set out best practice in waste management policies as the EEA says the full range of methods to prevent waste from entering landfill, from prevention and recycling to material and energy recovery and pre-treatment, are not being practiced by all member states.

What the next four years will bring to citizens and businesses in Europe will start to unfold as the new Parliament and Commission take office later this year. But one thing is certain: the 53 newly-elected or re-elected MEPs from the Green/European Free Alliance party, which took seven percent of the vote across the EU, up from 5.5 percent in 2004, will be hoping to make their mark on the environmental performance of the Union. The Sustainable Consumption Plan and Thematic Strategy reviews might present the opportunity to start reducing Europe’s ever-growing mountains of rubbish.

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