The colour of garbage bags could soon be harmonised across the 27 EU member states under European Commission plans to improve waste collection and boost recycling.
The harmonised colour scheme for bin bags is part of wider EU efforts to create a single market for waste that will help the bloc meet its climate goals, said Mattia Pellegrini, a senior official at the European Commission’s environment directorate.
“At the moment there are different bags and different rules for collecting the different streams of waste,” Pellegrini told the Ideas Festival in Brussels earlier this month.
As a result, “many things that are recyclable end up in the residual bin” because people often get confused and end up throwing litter in the wrong bag, he pointed out.
To simplify things, the Commission is looking at harmonising the colour of waste disposal bags across the EU, he added, saying the proposal was “clearly indicated” in the European Green Deal presented by the European Commission in December.
“By having this harmonised colour-coding, this would also facilitate pan-European campaigns” aimed at informing consumers, Pellegrini said.
“The idea is to come up with new guidelines by 2022,” he explained, saying the proposal could also be linked to the revision of the EU’s packaging waste directive, for which the Commission will table a proposal by June 2021.
Strong support from industry
The harmonisation of bin bags is strongly supported by the waste and recycling industry.
“Oh yes, harmonisation would really make sense,” said Jean Hornain, director-general of Citeo, a non-profit company responsible for the collection and sorting of municipal waste in France.
“And I think we should start by our own country,” he added, pointing out that the colour of bin bags often differs between French regions.
“Here in France, the municipalities have the freedom to decide the colour of the bin,” he remarked. “So it’s a real issue here”.
Food and beverage companies like PepsiCo, which are heavy users of packaging, are also strongly in favour of harmonised bin bags. “It is ultimately easier for consumers to know where to dispose and how to dispose,” said Archana Jagannathan, senior director for sustainable packaging at PepsiCo, which supported the debate at the Ideas Festival.
Having the same colour for bin bags will “end the level of confusion there is today” when people move from one region to another or from one country to another, Jagannathan pointed out.
“Ultimately that is what will drive recyclers to make investments,” she added, saying harmonised bags will also encourage the creation of “a pan European market” for waste and secondary materials.
Extended producer responsibility schemes
Greater harmonisation is also being envisaged for so-called “extended producer responsibility” schemes, which make manufacturers like PepsiCo pay for the cost of collection, transport and treatment of waste.
By putting the burden on producers, EPR schemes have helped finance waste infrastructure in EU member states. In France and Germany. €10 billion euros were invested to create separate collection schemes and sorting centres thanks to EPR systems that were put in place in the1990s, Hornain explained.
“Today in France, we recycle 70% of household packaging and that’s a success of the past 25 years,” he said.
However, waste packaging may be charged differently across different regions or countries depending on the EPR schemes that apply there. EPR fees may also vary depending on how easy it is to recycle a plastic bottle or a beverage carton, for example.
According to Pellegrini, “a more harmonised system would better reflect the cost of treating and managing waste” and allow economies of scale when building new recycling facilities.
“This may also imply that certain types of packaging may be forbidden due to the fact that they are not reusable or recyclable,” he said.
The European Commission is also looking at extending EPR schemes to cover new categories of waste. Currently, EPR schemes apply to waste streams like packaging, single-use plastics, batteries, or electronic and electric equipment. Under upcoming EU rules, they could also cover clothing, or construction and demolition waste, Pellegrini said.
Moving towards greater harmonisation won’t be easy, however, and is expected to meet resistance from national governments, which will have to implement the changes.
“The real challenge will be the member states,” Pelligrini admitted, saying they were “the elephant in the room” when it comes to waste legislation at EU level.
“On some of those issues, it goes all the way to the local level,” he remarked, pointing to potential issues with municipalities and regions. “And in the end, we will have to find a compromise with the 27 member states”.