Although non-binding, the guidance gives recommendations to Member States on how to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment, while preventing and reducing disruptions in the provision of proper waste management services in the context of COVID-19.
What the guidance says
The Commission (COM) guidance states that “there is currently no evidence to suggest that standard waste management procedures are unsafe or insufficient, in terms of the risk for COVID-19 infection, or that household waste plays a role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2” or other respiratory viruses.
The Commission specifically advises Member States to safeguard the overall continuity of proper municipal waste management services, including separate collection and recycling, that continue to align with and adhere to current EU waste regulations.
In this regard, the Commission advises that any adaptation of waste collection practices must continue to comply with EU law on waste. Any changes to waste collection practices must be “p roportionate to goals of protecting human health”, whilst changes and adaptations must be limited “t o areas and time periods strictly necessary” and must be “based on the latest scientific advice” , leaving no room for arbitrary decisions.
One of the most important points within the guidance is that any transitional adaptations to waste management systems must “strive to maintain the overall objective of separate collection and recycling in line with the waste hierarchy”.
What this means in practice
Zero Waste Europe supports the Commission’s acknowledgement of the importance of science-based1 2 decision-making, whilst warning against the risk of short-term policy-making that could undermine the EU’s long-term circular economy objectives.
Furthermore, through biological stabilisation methods, there is a possibility to effectively deal with residual waste whilst also addressing the need to sanitise waste during the COVID-19 crisis and ensure compliance with the EU Directive 99/31 on Landfilling. As a matter of fact, there is solid scientific evidence that highlights the efficiency of temperatures achieved through biological stabilisation3 in ensuring proper viral inactivation. Importantly, biological stabilisation may use capacities that could be converted to composting at a later stage, thereby ensuring flexibility and full alignment with the long term EU roadmap towards a circular economy.
Currently, EU member states remain locked in discussions regarding the size and structure of what the recovery funding mechanism will take following the COVID-19 crisis. The current crisis provides an opportunity to invest European recovery funds into building economies that are circular in their material use, which lead the transition to a zero waste, zero-carbon future.
At a time when there may be an increase in prioritising and optimising cost savings by public authorities, our zero waste approach can provide municipalities with a localised and resilient system that is also less capital intensive, providing several opportunities to reduce expenditure on waste management. These opportunities range from having less waste collection rounds, due to a reduction in waste generation and an increase in reuse or home composting for example, to extra revenues from having higher quality recycled materials and a reduction in the fees paid to expensive waste disposal methods, such as incineration.
Also, it is worth noting that whilst delivering cost efficiency, zero waste programmes shift a local economy towards one that provides more local jobs and has less capital expenditure. Thereby creating a circular economic model, preventing waste from being generated whilst delivering more employment and economic growth in a manner that’s sustainable.
The COVID-19 crisis has provided us all with an opportunity to reflect on our lives, our society and the kind of future we want to build. As the Commission’s guidance highlights, the collection of waste and recycling can and should continue undisturbed. ZWE expects national governments to take note and apply the findings of this guidance when considering changes to their waste management practices. However, it would be wrong to simply call for a return to “business as usual” once the COVID-19 crisis is over.
2020 marks the first year of recycling targets set within the EU Waste Framework Directive, requiring member states to achieve 50% recycling rates. Current estimates show that less than half of the EU’s Member States were on target to reach this goal.
Therefore a return to business as usual is insufficient. What is required is greater ambition, backed up by meaningful implementation on the ground.
Our zero waste approach provides a template for how cities can reach recycling rates of 70-80% and beyond. Whilst simultaneously also reducing GHG emissions and the need for environmentally harmful waste disposal and incineration methods, helping save costs and bring communities together at the same time.
In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, it is these principles and goals that should be embedded at the forefront of any economic recovery package decided by governments.