BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - Europe has pushed back a deadline for companies to volunteer to increase their use of recycled plastics in lieu of regulation, showing how hard it is to end the continent’s reliance on developing countries dealing with its waste.
The pledges were due to have been made by the end of June under a European plastics strategy unveiled in January when China stopped taking the world’s waste due to pollution concerns, focusing minds on its environmental impact.
An EU official said the deadline had been shifted to September after industry appealed for more time. That timeline makes the fallback option of legislation highly unlikely.
The European Union recycles only a quarter of the 25-26 million tonnes of plastics waste it produces per year and about half of that was sent to China, which uses recycled plastics to make products ranging from office furniture to cable coatings.
The EU executive wants ten million tonnes of recycled plastics to be used in new products sold in the bloc by 2025 - quadrupling demand.
If company pledges do not tally up to that target, it has said it will consider further measures, including regulatory action after December.
But few new laws will be put forth next year because of elections for European Parliament and European Commission head - not to mention Britain’s scheduled exit from the bloc.
The EU executive’s focus is on pushing through its proposal to ban throwaway plastics such as cotton buds and plastic straws and new labelling rules for plastic waste.
Without a mix of incentives and regulation to spur demand for the waste, industry says there will be no sea change in the market.
Recyclers in Europe say they are planning to scale up capacity but that to make it worthwhile, there need to be more buyers for recycled plastic closer to home.
In the meantime, they have found markets in other parts of Asia for just over half the waste that used to go to China and say much of the rest is being incinerated, raising the risk of backsliding in sorting efforts, which vary widely across the EU.
“If China no longer imports plastic waste, we cannot tell Europeans to stop sorting because we have no more buyers,” said Jean-Marc Boursier, CFO and head of recycling at French group Suez (SEVI.PA).
“The right answer is for authorities to change the paradigm and boost the incorporation of secondary materials.”
Divisions within the 28-member bloc and warnings from companies that incorporating recycled plastic will lower the quality of products and increase costs, mean enforcing its target is difficult.
Some companies have come forward.
Among the more ambitious, Volvo, owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co Ltd, has said a quarter of plastics used in its models would be from recycled materials by 2025, while Danone (DANO.PA) said its Evian plastic bottles would be made from 100 percent recycled plastic by then.
Austrian plastics maker Borealis, which makes plastics used in products from food packaging to cars, also says it will invest more in coming years to produce “completely waste-based” recycled goods.
The Commission official said from all along the plastics value chain had shown interest in the pledging campaign: “We think it is possible to achieve this target on a voluntary basis.”
But other EU sources admitted the political push hung on industry goodwill and it will be difficult to even asses whether promises amounted to enough to shift demand.
Borealis CEO Alfred Stern said it was an uphill battle to make recycling profitable.
“Technologies need to be developed,” he told Reuters. “But the end goal needs to be commercial, economic viability.”
Suez and fellow French water and waste group Veolia (VIE.PA), Europe’s biggest recycling companies, both see an eventual upside to China’s restrictions, with plastics waste a relatively small, but growing part of their business.
“The impact of the ban on Europe’s recycling industry is enormous, and while it is a disturbance in the short term, over the long term it is a good business opportunity,” Woldemar d’Ambrières, head of plastics strategy at Veolia, said.
Unlike glass, which is cheaper to produce from recycled glass than from silicate, plastics are hard to sort and recycle economically in Europe, especially when oil prices are low.
Suez processes some 400,000 tons of plastic waste and produces 150,000 tons of recycled plastic per year. It wants to recycle all the waste it sorts and, if market prices hold up, will invest about 100 million euros over the next three years to boost its recycling capacity to 600,000 tonnes per year.
“We want industry to make water bottles from water bottles, milk bottles from milk bottles, shampoo bottles from shampoo bottles,” Boursier said.
Veolia recycles about 300,000 tonnes of plastics per year and aims to boost plastics recycling revenue to one billion euros per year by 2025 from 200 million euros today.
Industry body Plastics Recyclers Europe (PRE) says many of the smaller companies which handle much of the continent’s plastic waste also have plans to invest and some plastics producers are teaming up with recyclers.
In November, Suez and major plastics manufacturer LyondellBasell together bought Dutch plastics recycler QCP, while Borealis bought two German plastics recyclers in 2016.
“The plastics industry did not do enough to close the loop,” said PRE director Antonino Furfari. “It realises now that the way to do that is to invest in recyclers.”
Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; editing by Philippa Fletcher