DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — The European Union may raise the targets for how much plastic packaging must be recycled, in sharp contrast to the back-burner spot recycling occupies in most U.S. policy debates.
But the European debate, set to begin early next year, could take a close look for the first time at the costs and benefits of recycling, said Nancy Russoto, director general of the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe.
Predicting where the discussion will go is difficult, but conventional wisdom suggests the 15 percent target will be hiked. Many policy makers and a recent European Commission report consider higher targets a good way to force more recycling, Russoto said.
But the high costs and quick implementation of Germany's Green Dot packaging program are giving some nations pause, she said. Dealing with high unemployment is the biggest political issue in Europe, which will force governments to take a hard look at the costs and benefits of other programs such as recycling, she said.
``I think politically people believe the debate today to be about increasing targets; however, I think there are signs the debate might be a more substantive one and the debate will be about should the targets be raised,'' Russoto said.
Each European Union country must recycle 15 percent of all of its packaging by 2001, and the revision is expected to increase that target to between 20 and 25 percent by 2006, said Neil Mayne, director of APME's technical and environmental center.
But many countries are far from that 15 percent target, including France and the United Kingdom, and some clearly will not make it, APME said. Lack of landfill space, less-developed waste collection systems and more political influence for environmentalists are giving recycling more prominence in Europe than in the United States, she said.
Across Europe, slightly more than 9 percent of all plastic packaging is recycled. Some nations, like Germany and Holland, exceed that dramatically, APME said.
EU requires member countries to recycle between 25 and 45 percent of all packaging by 2001, and as part of that, each material also must be recycled at a rate of at least 15 percent to keep a material from riding on the coattails of another.
A country that does not meet the target is likely to keep working toward the goal, she said. It's very unlikely that EU would take action against nations that fall short, Russoto said.
EU recycling figures cover all packaging, including transport packaging, shrink wrap and other flexibles, plus all household packaging. Figures from U.S. trade associations generally measure plastic bottles and rigid containers, but an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund said that 9.5 percent of all plastic packaging was recycled in the United States in 1996.
Recent APME studies predict that plastics recycling will hit an average of 15 percent by 2006, but question whether there will be enough market demand for the recycled resin if all of Europe recycles at 15 percent, officials said.
The industry also is watching an EU debate about whether to let feedstock recycling, which breaks down plastic into component monomers and other chemicals, count toward recycling goals.
The packaging recycling directive does allow feedstock recycling, but a draft directive on automobile recycling slated to be considered later in November seems to favor mechanical recycling, APME said. Feedstock recycling will be crucial to meeting the targets, and a committee of the EU parliament seemed to recognize as much in a decision in October, APME officials said.
Before they invest in expensive feedstock recycling projects, European chemical companies want more certainty that feedstock recycling will count toward recycling goals, Mayne said. Both Texaco Chemical Co. and British Petroleum Co. plc are involved in plastic feedstock recycling projects, he said.
Much of Germany's recycling comes from feedstock processes, which account for about one-sixth of the plastic packaging recycled in Europe, APME said.
APME is putting more emphasis on recycling, and less attention on waste-to-energy facilities as a solution to plastics waste, Russoto said.
``The perception has been that the plastics industry has been only interested in incinerating plastics,'' she said. ``If you look at our publications in the past years, there probably was an overemphasis on energy recovery.''
Now, the group wants to say clearly that it favors recycling and fosters it by demonstrating best practices and finding market opportunities, she said.
Still, energy recovery remains more widely used. In 1996, about 5.51 billion pounds of plastics were disposed of in energy-recovery facilities, compared with 3.52 billion pounds recycled, APME figures indicate.
Brussels-based APME represents the European resin producers, and its officials spoke in interviews during and shortly after the K'98 show in Dusseldorf.