The EU should not export its waste challenges to third countries with lower treatment standards. Revising the Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR) is the last chance to get things right while contributing to EU climate targets and saving secondary raw materials.
Axel Eggert is the Director General of the European Steel Association (EUROFER).
This is why ensuring that steel scrap is recycled according to EU standards is critical. But what is it, and why does it matter? Steel scrap is recycled steel composed of products that have reached their ends of life, such as vehicles, machinery or ships, are no longer in use or demolished structures, old or broken domestic appliances such as refrigerators or washing machines, packaging as well as yield losses in the steelmaking process. In short: a precious secondary raw material that can save millions of tons of natural resources and avoid millions of tons of CO2 emissions.
Steel is 100% recyclable and reusable forever, without any property loss (‘permanent material’). Therefore, steel is circular by nature. More than half (57.6%) of the EU steel production is made from recycled steel. Steel is also undergoing the most significant change since its birth: revolutionising its primary production processes in the European Union to cut CO2 emissions by 55% in the next eight years and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
One of the key ingredients of this green steel revolution is scrap. Every tonne of recycled steel prevents 1,5 tonnes of CO2 emissions from going into the atmosphere. The emissions saved go up to 5 tonnes in the case of stainless steel. However, the journey from iron to steel products and then to scrap is long. Thus, exporting scrap to third countries means losing out on a vast potential to save natural resources, energy and CO2 emissions in the EU and globally for the many countries with lower standards than in Europe.
Unfortunately, exports of EU scrap have been on the rise for several years, increasing by a stunning 113% in 2021 compared to 2015. Again, the situation is crystal-clear: “In 2021, exports of ferrous metals waste (iron and steel) amounted to 19.5 million tonnes, accounting for more than half (59%) of all waste exports from the EU. The main destination was Turkey which received 13.1 million tonnes, around two-thirds (67%) of all ferrous metal waste exported from the EU”, as noted by Eurostat in May.
This fact is severe for two reasons. Firstly, the EU is increasing exports of secondary raw materials, which is critical for decarbonisation at a moment when EU scrap needs are also increasing precisely for meeting the EU climate targets. So instead of ensuring our strategic autonomy, we risk having scrap shortages for the EU’s decarbonisation and end up on a new dependency on third countries, with skyrocketing scrap prices as we see it currently with natural gas.
Secondly, most of the EU scrap is exported where there is no sound waste management and little or no climate ambition, with enormous risks for the environment, and health, not to mention labour and social standards. This needs to change.
In the current proposal for the revision of the Waste Shipment Regulation, the OECD status of a country is considered sufficient proof that these essential environmental and social conditions are met. But unfortunately, this is not always the case, as many reports and indicators, such as the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), show.
This is why it is vital that the European Parliament, currently discussing the European Commission’s proposal, urgently addresses these concerns. Furthermore, it is paramount that also OECD countries which import EU waste meet EU standards as an initial condition for waste shipment.
Notably, ex-ante monitoring of local waste processing conditions and regulations, combined with appropriate and effective safeguard procedures to suspend exports in case required conditions are no longer met, should be introduced.
In all circumstances, effective, rigorous, transparent and standard-based audits of third countries’ facilities processing EU waste should also be required to comply with environmentally sound management principles.
At the same time, it is crucial to prevent the circumvention of the Waste Shipment Regulation through the reclassification of exported waste using the so-called ‘end of waste regime‘. This would create the perverse effect of missing out on the purpose of the new legislation while causing environmental hazards just for the sake of short-term lower costs obtained by eluding the new obligations.
Lastly, the potential for intra-shipments of waste within the EU must be exploited. A strong, resilient, green European economy can only be achieved and sustained if circularity is implemented in the 27 member states. By taking advantage of the decarbonisation potential of EU input materials such as steel scrap, Europe can deliver the Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan for real.
The European steel industry will do its utmost to revise the Waste Shipment Regulation as a success, not a missed opportunity. It calls on the EU institutions to join its battle for the environment, climate, industry and citizens.
Janice is a full-time mom who likes to write on a range of topics in her spare time. She specializes in the Home, Garden, and Recycling topics. Janice is our Lifestyle and positive vibe expert. She keeps the office running.