2. Finite Resources

All resources on earth are limited and major companies control energy, water and waste. The ongoing concentration 2018.10 Crude oilin these markets is powered by guaranteed profit margins to be gained due to the dependence of countries, citizens and governments on these resources.
The oil price does not reflect the value of this finite resource but is used as a political instrument.
In the EU plastic waste is primarily regarded as substitute fuel and existing waste incineration over-capacities and their further expansion reduce available material for recyclers.
Without binding plastic recycling quotas there will be no progress in this industry and it will continue to follow the rules of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

The Value of Oil

The price of oil continued to rise steadily until 2008 and raw-material cost for plastic production followed and led to consolidation and loss of work places. With the financial crisis 2008/2009 the oil price crashed and prices for commodity plastics and their raw materials decreased to an even greater extent. In the period from November 2008 until January 2009 benzene was even cheaper than oil (from which it is produced), showing how unrealistic the situation was.
At low oil prices investment in oil production is cut back, due to lower profitability, thus leading to a reduction of new projects, which will be taken up again when a recovering economy creates the pre-programmed supply crunch and pushes the oil price up again.
After the financial crisis has been overcome the price of oil rose again until mid 2011 and stagnated on this level until mid 2014, when the U.S. decided to sell part of their oil-reserve.
The price of oil halved within a year and the state finances of oil producing countries came under pressure. In return they carried on “flooding” the market with oil and Saudi Arabia especially targeted U.S. companies in the “fracking” industry. Beginning 2016 after the sanctions from the nuclear dispute came to an end Iran re-entered the market as important oil producer and the price of oil is on the level of 2000. Despite the fact that every day the world discusses about finite resources and/or abandoning fossil energy as necessary steps in order to reduce the CO2 emissions, this necessity is not reflected in the oil price. In reality this price is rather an instrument for political and strategic objectives, which have little to do with the value of this finite resource.

Resource Dependency

Europe is the world’s biggest net importer of resources with a value of 704 billion Euro in 2013 (including energy) and the EU imported 60% of the fossil fuels and metal resources in 20111). The new EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy2) „Closing the Loop“ aims like all predecessor models at more recycling and reuse and the proposals include elements as:

  • EU Recycling targets of 65% municipal waste and 75% packaging waste by 2030
  • A ban on land-filling of separately collected waste
  • Economic incentives for recovery and recycling (e.g. packaging, batteries, electro(nic) equipment, vehicles)

With such objectives the EU intends to reduce the consumption of resources, reduce waste and support recycling in order to reduce its resource dependency.
However it needs to be asked whether this scenario includes plastics at all.
The prices for plastics inevitably follow the price of oil and the cheaper it is the more expensive and less attractive becomes plastic recycling in the EU. REACH and RoHS directives require new recycling technologies for the separation of dangerous pollutants, in order to enable recycling of such waste streams and prevent, that the majority will continue to be used as substitute fuel for waste incinerators.
But these are only proposed objectives and the final directive to be adopted at the end will only be the lowest common denominator, that the EU-27 (today without UK) will be willing to agree on and so we should not expect too many changes to the present status quo and until 2030 it is still a long way to go.

Basel and Stockholm Conventions

Since 1992 the Basel Convention3) regulates trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste and the Stockholm Convention4) the handling of persistent organic pollutants since 2004.

Basel Convention

  • Control of trans-boundary movements of hazardous waste and their disposal
  • Implemented 5 Mai 1992
  • Ratified by 181 UN member states, the Cook Islands, the EU and Palestine, but without the U.S. (exports  80%  of its WEEE) – status July 2016
  • EU: Regulation (EEC) No 259/93 of 1 February 1993, replaced by Regulation (EC) No 1013/2006 of 14 June 2006

Stockholm Convention

  • Elimination or restriction of production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
  • Implemented 17 May 2004 in Kraft
  • Ratified by 152 states incl. EU, but without the U.S. - status June 2016
  • EU: Regulation (EC) No 850/2004 of 24 April 2004

Consequently, it would be reasonable to assume that within the EU and when exporting the transport of dangerous waste is closely monitored and controlled. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are identified, listed and it is taken care of, that those no longer find use in new products and contaminated waste streams are demonstrably disposed of.
If it is still possible that only 1/3 WEEE shows up at the municipal collection points in the EU, another 1/3 is non-compliantly processed and the rest is exported or disappeared (CWIT Report 2015), then one must conclude that a realization and/or control of adopted regulations in member states is not possible or desired.

Valuable Waste – but for whom?

Waste is a resource one can make a lot of money with and the business is already distributed.
Scrap metals will always be recycled and scrap dealers will be happy to take them into their shredders, no matter whether they come from domestic waste, end-of-life vehicles or WEEE and it will be easy and cheap to dispose of the remaining plastic waste (shredder-light-fraction) in a waste incinerator.
In Germany waste disposal charges increase caused by the overcapacities of waste incineration plants. 4 million tons of waste are confronted with 6 million tons of incineration capacity for example in North Rhine-Westphalia and cities and municipalities have to pay between €140 - €227/t (status July 2015)5) because the utilization is too low. A city without own waste incineration like Muelheim benefits from the competition and pays only €54/t. Plastic waste sorting companies (= Recycler with recycling quota assessment) are as well appreciated clients to increase the capacity utilization and pay only €60/t (status 2013)6) for their substitute fuel with high heating value.
According to a study for NABU (German Association for the Conservation of Nature) additional 28 new incineration plants as well as the expansion of 6 existing ones are planned by 20207). Already today Germany imports 2 million tons of waste and this needs to become more (approximately 8 million tons), because the EU intends to reduce the waste generation, thus forcing the disposal industry, to purchase sufficient “fuel” for their increasing overcapacities and this will result in declining plastic recycling and increasing “waste tourism”.
If in such a situation a member state like Germany with the highest recovery quota in the EU legally repeals the recycling priority with the “Heating Value Clause” and equates it with incineration, how should one imagine the “Closing the Loop” implementation by 2030?
In the EU waste incineration overcapacities8,9) not only exist in Germany but also in the UK, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark and additionally the EU Commission makes an effort to boost the waste incineration (with energy recovery) in other member states within the scope of its Action Plan for the “Circular Economy”10), provided of course that waste is only incinerated when recycling is not possible!
This will increase the incineration competition even more, because it will reduce the available volumes for “waste tourism” and it will certainly lead to not being too strict with the boundary conditions.

Plastic Recycling 2.0

The documented plastic recycling volumes will of course continue to increase, because only the volumes entering a sorting or recycling plant are counted and not how much is really recycled, and partial double-counting helps.
In future plastic recycling may be focused on pure plastic waste loops (e.g. PET bottle, EPS packaging), because here a “recycling privilege” (und REACH) can be practiced without major difficulties and without RoHS or POPs which will require substance identification and make it more difficult.
2016 The Way of OilIn case of too clean plastic waste streams, unforeseeable sorting problems and the presence of RoHS and POP contaminated plastic waste may classify those as “non-recyclable waste” that requires certified destruction and helps the suffering waste incineration industry.
According to EU statements recycling generates 5-7 time more jobs than waste incineration7), but as long as it is not desirable, to recycle plastics, because they are not seen as a resource but only as a substitute fuel, we however have to live with the fact that plastic waste will pollute the environment and especially our seas to a greater extent.Hazardous pollutants preferably adhere to swimming plastic particles and finally animals and human beings ingest them with sea food11).This is of course not desirable but may be an alternative sustainable „Closing the Loop“ approach, that directly targets the polluter (as group). One could consider this as Natural Cycle.
With his taxes, fees and waste disposal charges every citizen not only finances our sophisticated circular economy, but also on top by using his entire body he makes sure that pollutants, which have slipped through our tight legislative regulations, will be digested by our society.  For safety reasons there exist of course EU limit values for hazardous substances in food (e.g. flame retardants)12,13).     

Conclusion

Normally a short positive summary an achieved progress motivates at this place and a positive outlook would create curiosity for further improvements in the future.
Unfortunately the theme “plastic recycling” and its economic and ecological integration into a free market economy like ours, with problems like CO2 balance and waste of resources, does not offer this.

Without binding plastic recycling quotas plastic waste will preferably be incinerated and the statistics mirror only a pseudo reality.
The resource oil is simply too cheap.

It is a pity!   
But that is just the way it is with the Tragedy of the Commons14).

 

 Literature

  1. 2015.09.17 Julia Philipp „Chancen der Kreislaufwirtschaft“ zum Symposium 10 Jahre Elektroaltgeräte Koordinierungsstelle – Link
  2. Closing the Loop – An EU action plan for the Circular Economy - Link  
  3. Basel Convention Wiki - Link
  4. Stockholm Convention Wiki - Link
  5. Kölnische Rundschau vom 08.07.2015 “Teure Müllverbrennung”.  – Link 
  6. Frankfurter Rundschau vom 13.03.2013 „Recycling – Verbrennen ist billiger“ – Link 
  7. NABU „Mehr Müllimporte – weniger Recycling“ Homepage – last check 11.08.2016 – Link 
  8. Marta Jofra Sora for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives & GAIA: “Incinerator overcapacities and waste shipping in Europe – the end of the proximity principle?” Jan 7th, 2013:  - Link  
  9. GAIA “More incineration than trash to burn in the EU – last check of Homepage on 11.08.2016 – Link 
  10. 2016/1 Communication from the EU Commission: Exploiting the potential of waste to energy under the energy union framework strategy and the circular energy – Link   
  11. NTV “Giftcocktail in Flüssen und Meeren – Mikroplastik starker belastet als erwartet” vom 03.08.2016 – Homepage last check 11.08.2016 – Link  
  12. Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung BFR: Gesundheitliche Bewertung Nr. 041/2006 vom 1. Juni 2006: EU-Höchstgehalte für Dioxine und dioxinähnliche PCB in Fisch schützen …. nicht immer ausreichend“ – Link 
  13. Umweltbundesamt „Dioxine und dioxinähnliche PCB in Umwelt und Nahrungsketten“ von 1.12.2013 – Link 
  14. Tragedy of the Commons - Wiki - Link

 

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