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EU is warming to plastic waste ‘recycling’ as a transport fuel

By Hannah Figg / Updated: 21 May 2018

 

Despite environmentalists urging caution, a proposal to use non-recyclable plastic waste in transport fuel production is gaining strength among EU member states and European Parliament legislators.

Waste-based fossil fuels

According to the European Commission, ‘waste-based fossil fuels’ are gaseous and liquid fuels that are formed from waste streams of non-renewable origin, which includes exhaust and waste processing gases. In the Commisison's revised Renewable Energy Directive proposal, these 'waste-based fossil fuels' are listed as able to be converted into energy such as transport fuels or renewable electricity.

The European Parliament has since added solid waste streams, which would include plastics, to this definition. This proposition is gaining support in the EU Council of Ministers, with four Member States encouraging the plan (Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK). Further momentum has also developed after the decision was made by China to ban all plastic and other recycled waste imports from Europe and other countries. 

However, environmental groups are deeply concerned about the involvement of plastics in the renewable fuels definition, and, as a coalition, wrote to EU legislators on 2nd May stating: “We believe that this inclusion is a harmful distortion of the concept of renewable energy, and inconsistent with EU circular economy and climate policies. Fuel production from non-renewable solid waste such as plastics is equivalent to the use of fossil sources, and therefore the opposite of renewable energy.”

Due to containing too many ‘impurities’, old non-recyclable plastic materials can end up in combustion engines, with campaigners warning of a ‘dangerous precedent’. Janek Vahk, a campaigner at Zero Waste Europe stated “It’s very controversial as it could create a precedent for including fossil-based fuels in the renewables and climate policy. Moreover, it could undermine countries efforts to address the issue of plastic recyclability”.

Extra safeguards considered

On 8th May, ambassadors from the 28 EU countries had planned to meet to discuss the proposed changes to the Renewable Energy Directive. However, it was clear that some Members of the European Parliament were having second thoughts. Vahk stated “They realise now that this approach could pose some problems and are looking for some safeguards”.

The introduction of waste-based fossil fuels in the Renewables Directive has always been part of the plan, according to Bart Martens, an assistant to Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, who helped draft the amendment voted on in plenary. The idea is to prevent incineration, as a large amount of CO2 emissions can be bypassed if non-recyclable plastic waste is used as transport fuel. He stated, “The CO2 savings are potentially very large, and the carbon life cycle shows it is positive for the environment”.

“The only thing Parliament did was add extra safeguards to ensure this respects the waste hierarchy and prevents unrecyclable plastic waste ending up in incinerators”, Martens told EURACTIV, highlighting that the compromise amendment was approved by a large majority of Parliament political groups. “It’s up to the negotiators to find a middle ground to ascertain that the waste hierarchy is respected,” Martens added, stating that, if necessary, legislators could ‘rephrase’ the definition.

He continued that a more favourable option would have been to incorporate, under the Fuel Quality Directive, ‘recycled carbon fuels’, but no consideration was given to this. Therefore, EU legislators have opted for a more pragmatic approach by proposing to include them in the amended Renewable Energy Directive. He reiterated that ‘recycled carbon fuels’ will not be considered as renewable energy under the altered EU Directive: “They are only included in the blending obligation as an extra way to decarbonise the transport sector, in particular aviation or shipping, where electrification is more difficult”.

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