Chelgate Public Affairs Newsletter – November 2020
This month’s episode looks at the European Commission’s busy 2021 work programme, explores the potential of chemical recycling, reveals the UK government’s strategy on reducing emissions from heavy duty vehicles, and much more.
Chemical recycling: fixing the plastics problem?
When the EU Circular Economy Action Plan was published in Spring 2020, the Commission’s intentions to revolutionise the European waste policy according to the credo of “less waste, more value” alarmed the waste management sector. While the recycling industry strives to improve efficiency and increase recycling rates, a rise in the complexity and contamination of plastics increasingly complicates the recycling process. With less than 20% of all plastics being recycling worldwide, it seems like mechanical recycling has indeed reached its limits. But there’s hope: Chemical recycling. Can it fix the plastics problem?
Sounds complicated? Is complicated! Chemical recycling breaks down any type of plastics into its molecular elements, thereby reconverting used plastics to practically virgin-like raw materials. In theory, chemical recycling realises the principles of the circular economy: it allows to drastically increase recycling rates, helps to divert waste away from landfills and prevents incineration, extracts value from waste, closes the circular loop by supplying high-quality raw materials, and so on. It does not come as a surprise that chemical recycling is “hyped” by the industry as the “holy grail” of recycling, and so over the last few years, big players like BP, Neste or Unilever have heavily invested in chemical recycling technologies.
So, is chemical recycling the silver bullet that can finally reconcile environmental protection with plastics production? Unfortunately, reality paints a different picture. Sharing the same fate as most secondary raw materials, an uncompetitive, high price compared to virgin materials, an insufficient scale of production and hence lack of large-scale availability have so far hindered the large-scale deployment of chemical recycling.
Despite these hurdles, the European Commission regards chemical recycling as a “promising technology” and seeks to support projects exploring the potential of chemical recycling within the scope of the Circular Economy Action Plan. Undoubtedly, a strong regulatory framework can help to regulate and incentivise large-scale chemical recycling and allow it to become economically viable and competitive. The Commission’s call for projects is the first step in this direction. At the same time, however, the Commission’s interest in chemical recycling should not be mistaken as a blank check. After all, the principle of “reduce” presides on the top of the waste hierarchy, and so minimalizing the use of plastics overall will remain the EU’s main priority.
The Commission’s 2021 work programme: from strategy to delivery
Powered by an energetic new cabinet, the Commission’s 2020 agenda has been packed with game-changing strategies and proposals – the European Green Deal, the new Climate Law, the Farm to Fork Strategy to name but a few. 2021 will be the year to deliver on the promises, and so we give you a sneak peek on what to expect in 2021 on energy, transport and environment policy.
Although the adoption of an annual work programme is a routine task, the forthcoming programme fundamentally differs from previous programmes: for the first time in the EU’s history, the Commission will put its efforts on saving the lives and livelihoods of those affected by a global pandemic. But at the same time, foresight and prevention are engrained in the Commission’s institutional DNA, and so it would be wrong to assume that the pandemic will cloud the EU’s green ambitions for 2021. Quite on the contrary – it seems like the institutions are more ambitious than ever to deliver a “green recovery”.
Amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) to implement the ambition of the new 2030 climate target
The current energy framework only foresees a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions and is therefore not fit to meet the new 2030 objective. With a strict 55% emission reduction target on the horizon, the Commission requires Member States to make additional efforts to decarbonise the energy market, for instance by speeding up the expansion of renewables. Expect a recast of REDII by June 2021 – and expect it to be exciting! Delivering on the renewable energy target is a national competence, and so major differences in the share of renewables among the Member States are likely to make the negotiations tough.
Development of post-Euro 6/VI emission standards for cars, vans, lorries and buses
Transitioning to low-emission mobility is critical to hitting the emission reduction target. Yet, the sector’s emissions are anything but decreasing and so the Commission is pressurized to step up its ambitions. The future post Euro-6/VI regulations provide the Commission with – perhaps the last – opportunity to eradicate pollution from road transport. And so, by Q4 2021, the Commission will present what many hope to be the final EU emission standards to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. ACEA and Co. will be all over this.
Sustainable products policy initiative, including a revision of the Ecodesign Directive
Up to 80% of a products environmental footprint is determined at the design stage, and so by December 2021, the Commission will present a sustainable products policy initiative to streamline design for circularity. Expect a lot of benchmarking and standard-setting going on behind the scenes, as the Commission’s policy makers need to come up with definitions and methodologies to assess what accounts for “sustainable design”. Companies, especially in resource-intensive sectors such as electronics and plastics, will try to have their say on the new Ecodesign measures, wishing to influence the new methodologies in their favour. These policy sneak peeks demonstrate that 2021 will be the year of delivery.
In the following weeks, the Commission will liaise with the European Parliament and the Member States in the Council to develop a list of joint priorities on which swift action will be taken.
Microplastics proposal – no small issue for cosmetics industry
The EU Commission are pushing ahead with their proposed ban of microplastics in 2021 – though likely to be early 2022 – and the revised proposals have got many to sit up and take notice. The current draft EU ban on microplastics is no small issue for industry and whilst many within the industry are unhappy with the current draft proposals, the regulatory text on the table is a natural consequence of the lack of engagement with policymakers in the past.
The entire microplastic regulatory process – from initial European parliamentary plastics strategy discussions to ECHA’s various investigations – has highlighted the real issues facing the cosmetics industry; there is a real lack of knowledge and understanding by policymakers of the industry.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposal was indeed amended after input from expert groups and industry. However, the lack of verified data and accessible best practice case studies has repeatedly disrupted the engagement process.
How can it be that nearly three years into the current microplastics discussions, policymakers and scientific stakeholders are still lacking the adequate reliable data and case studies to confidently draw up nuanced and targeted legislative proposals.
The practical effect of this lack of knowledge by policymakers in the scientific elements of the industry is a broad microplastics definition. Indeed, many within the industry are concerned that the ECHA definition is so broad that it will lead to the inclusion of several cosmetics ingredients which are not plastic or hazardous.
The sixty-day consultation on the microplastic proposal will provide stakeholders with a timely opportunity to try and shape the final regulatory text. However, the lessons from the microplastic debate must be learnt and the industry as a whole need to dedicate greater efforts and resources to collaborative engagement with policymakers going forward. If the industry wish to be proactive and then merely presenting industry data will no longer suffice – a lesson quickly learnt by the transport sector in recent years.
Decarbonising heavy-duty vehicle transport: mission impossible?
After the end of the Brexit transition period, the UK will go down its “Road to Zero” without the EU’s supervision and its regulations on vehicle emission standards. However, the government has confirmed its intentions to retain ambitious vehicle standards post-Brexit, envisaging “almost every car and van” to be zero-emission by 2050. While the UK follows a clear pathway to reduce emissions from cars and vans, the decarbonisation of heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) remains a challenge. We reveal the UK’s approach to decarbonising the HDV sector, looking at natural gas and low-carbon fuels as the potential low carbon options for HDVs.
Liquified natural gas (LNG)
The UK broadly regards LNG as “an attractive alternative to existing fuels” yet recognises the sustainability concerns associated with the gas. Indeed, no other alternative fuel is as fiercely debated as liquified natural gas: not only do critics question the sustainability of LNG. There is also a major debate about the actual greenhouse gas savings of LNG powered HDVs, with one side claiming GHG emissions savings of up to 20% compared to fossil fuels, while critics argue that LNG trucks emit over two times more NOx pollutions than diesel. The government aims to settle this debate and is currently working with the industry to assess the true (environmental) performance of the latest gas trucks.
Biofuels (bioethanol, biodiesel, biomethane)
Biofuels fell into disrepute at the beginning of the decade, when it became evident that natural land was converted to grow crops for allegedly sustainable fuels. The biofuels industry has since tried hard to correct this negative image, and with big companies like Waitrose and John Lewis revealing their plans to power fleets on next-generation biodiesel, demand for biofuels is increasing. Looking ahead, the government expects the global market for advanced low carbon fuels to be worth up to £15 billion by 2030. With the UK withdrawing from the EU, the UK needs to come up with credible sustainability criteria for biofuels to ensure that biofuels are as environmentally friendly as their names suggest.
If you would like to know more information about chemical recycling or on any of the above content please contact our Chelgate Public Affairs team. Alternatively, you can contact our London Office here.