28 September 1993
on the management, treatment,
recycling and marketing of waste1
(Rapporteur: Mr ROSETA,
Portugal, Liberal Democratic and Reformers Group)
This issue is a very wide-ranging one. It is an ambitious undertaking to try to deal with the waste problem in a single report. Although the rapporteur has made a considerable effort to encompass all aspects of the subject, the document has a restricted framework leaving no room for detailed coverage. Some technical solutions, for example, despite their controversial and costly nature, are not presented in depth and are thus left out of the discussions on legislative aspects.
Matters such as industrial, hospital, household and nuclear waste all in practice deserve separate treatment. It should not be forgotten that nuclear waste was the subject of a specific Assembly report in 1985, at the suggestion of the Committee on Science and Technology: an extremely well researched report was drawn up on the basis of a colloquy (Resolution 847 and Doc. 5413).
The Committee on the Environment nevertheless deserves congratulations for its attempt to increase public and government awareness of an important topical subject which has repercussions for public health and safety, the environment and also the workings of the economy, through the influence of the different (or the lack of) legislation governing the relevant rules of competition.
This brief draft opinion merely highlights a number of points, the importance of which is not sufficiently emphasised in Mr Ruffy's draft report.
"Each civilisation has the waste it deserves": the words of Georges Duhamel accurately sum up the present situation in contemporary societies, the result of an overabundance of goods, excessive consumption and a wasteful mentality.
No single miracle solution exists today to the problem of household waste. No answer can be found unless all involved, from producers to consumers, are made aware of their responsibility in the long term.
A particular role is played by a relatively new material in ever-increasing use: plastic.
Plastics2 have particular properties which make them both irreplaceable for the packaging industry and dangerous pollutants. The majority of plastics are not biodegradable, meaning that they do not decompose naturally. Recycling of these products is therefore of quite particular importance. Practical action must be taken, if noteworthy progress is to be made in this field:
—mo re detailed research in order to improve the biodegradability of plastics;—
—Eu ropean standardisation of production, facilitating subsequent recycling, which is impossible if the composition of products is too disparate;—
—au tomation of sorting is essential to increase efficiency for users;—
—la stly, outlets are needed for new recycled products, as Mr Ruffy rightly points out in paragraph 2.2.4 of his draft.So
Some firms have started to make use of used plastics in their manufacturing processes (see table II). Profitability is low, however, and new ideas are few in this field. Some applications come up against over-strict regulations, some of which pointlessly require the use of new plastics, while chemical conversion or conversion into oil have not yet become profitable.
Still in the context of household waste, certain unilateral national decisions to recycle packaging have given rise to controversy and to disruptions of trade. An example is the recent Töpfer legislation in Germany, under which producers are obliged to recover all packaging (glass, cardboard, aluminium, plastic, etc.).
Over-hasty implementation of this legislation led to:
—th e complete withdrawal of some foreign firms from the German market;—
—co llection bottlenecks. Public opposition to incineration and the difficulty of finding local storage areas now oblige Germany to send its packaging abroad.Wi
Without indulging in cynicism, it may be said that ecological excesses may in their turn lead to a fresh cycle: transport/treatment/production (consequent energy consumption and CO삲)/further transport/final waste).
The principle of making producers responsible for their products after use is a praiseworthy one. Action nearer to the start of the production chain, taking account of the "life cycle" of each raw material, would nevertheless be a more valid strategy. We shall return to this concept below.
Bacterial and viral ecology research is still in its infancy. We know little about the development of pathogenic germs in average urban environments.
From time to time public opinion is alerted by news of the contamination of children playing in slum areas or taking items out of dustbins. It is true that such scenarios occur more frequently in developing countries, but we should not forget that islands of poverty and deprivation exist in our countries, too.
It is the duty of every civilised society to conduct research into the dissemination, temporary deactivation and possible reactivation of the pathogenic properties of germs discharged by health care establishments, and also to endeavour to move to a forward-looking approach, rather than simply incinerating waste systematically and frantically, which in any case proves insufficient in certain circumstances.
The already huge problems facing hospitals today will arise again in the future in respect of biotechnological research and production.
"Hospital waste" is far from being a simple issue. The European situation ought to be surveyed in an effort to find answers to questions like the following:
—ho w many establishments make quantitative assessments of their waste?—
—ho w many establishments separate contaminated and uncontaminated waste?—
—wh at methods are used to treat or eliminate waste within or outside hospitals?—
—ar e all germs and viruses eliminated through heat treatment, and at what temperature?Ho
Hospital waste does not require specific "high technology" processes, but does demand careful organisation, discipline and the adaptation of solutions according to the circumstances.
Waste is produced not only by large hospitals, but also by scattered independent businesses (doctors, nurses, laboratories, minor producers, etc.) which should not be overlooked. Local collection systems could be set up, following discussions between those concerned and local authorities (containers could be made available, for example).
There is a lurking danger, that of a pollution clear-up industry developing on the basis that the more pollution occurs, the more work there is for it, and the greater the profit to be made. That is the logic of drug dealers, creating demand and dependency.
We must respond by applying a different philosophy largely based on the principle that prevention is better than cure. Action must be taken at an earlier stage of the production cycle, involving at one and the same time:
—a re-examination of the nature and priority of the needs that it is the economy's task to meet;—
—cl ose scrutiny of the "life cycle" of all of industry's raw materials, from extraction to recycling and even beyond;—
—an improvement of production techniques and organisation so that they lend themselves better to sustainable development, involving the use of techniques and methods enabling used materials to be recovered more efficiently.A
A few motor vehicle manufacturers have recently managed to design vehicles with recyclable parts, of which purchasers are advised before they buy. This marks an encouraging step forward.
On the other hand, there are several preconceptions about industrial waste which it is time to reconsider. "Paper" is a really typical example. It has been generally recognised since the sixties that all paper recovered and recycled is a gain for the economy and plays a part in nature conservation.
Is it really so straightforward? If we wish to consider more than just "waste elimination", taking account of the much wider concept of "sustainability" (management of resources, energy and the environment), we must make a more critical analysis.
Paper recycling involves a process (see table III) which may not be appropriate in all circumstances, depending on quantity, region, available technology, etc. The process involves considerable transport capacity (pollution), de-inking by chemical means (not always using ecological products!) and a pulp production process (energy). It could therefore be argued that recycling is not a universal solution appropriate in every case. Where forests are managed efficiently and with the necessary care, as they are in Scandinavia, for example, the use of primary fibres might be both more profitable and harmless to the environment. In other cases it might be more beneficial to generate energy from used paper.
This example helps to make clear that it is a good idea periodically to question methods which are taken for granted in the light of new knowledge, but also to adopt a new approach involving interpretation of environmental aspects as a whole.
As already stated, this subject has been dealt with separately by the Assembly.
The large-scale dumping at sea which prevailed in the seventies and early eighties is now increasingly being superseded by the placing of radioactive waste in deep and stable geological formations. This solution also offers the advantage of being more open to international scrutiny, and this is why it is favoured by specialised international agencies such as the IAEA. However, not all of the problems have been solved. First and foremost, uncertainty remains about the evaluation of site safety. There is still a need for further scientific work on site characterisation.
As site construction costs are prohibitive, closer international co-operation is absolutely essential. The Assembly had already drawn attention to this aspect in Recommendation 847, requesting that smaller countries be allowed to use major sites.
It should also be remembered that the fuel used in certain types of reactors in service in France, the United Kingdom and Japan (particularly fast-breeder reactors) is reprocessed and recycled. This involves sometimes long-term temporary storage in cooling ponds or other man-made structures. Technical handling for the purposes of such storage is extremely difficult, and there is a need for safety precautions (shielding), cooling facilities and accurate means of controlling criticality. The relatively small number of incidents at fuel cycle plants since the early days of the nuclear industry in 1942 bear witness to the care taken in following procedures.
Another, rather different, question disregarded in many reports is that of accidents involving radioactive military material. Although it is difficult to regard such items as "waste" in the real sense, their effects on public health and the environment may nonetheless be equally devastating. Accidents of this kind may involve nuclear-powered warships (four submarines have been lost since 1963), fighter aircraft or nuclear bombs lost at sea or even satellites with reactors on board containing large quantities of plutonium-238 or uranium-235. Only a small number of such accidents have been publicly admitted, with an indication of location (see table IV).
There is one area which it is difficult to include in any of the four categories examined: solid residual waste, which comes from many different sources: industry, household activities, power stations, etc. Such residues or ashes may contain high concentrations of many heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, antimony, zinc and silver. These metals pose a real threat to ground water.
Long-term studies must be carried out into the composition, distribution and solubility of these residues. Recent studies have shown that nuclear and related analytical techniques (isotopic, neutron activation) may be optimised to study solid residues, which remain a vital element of waste management. Reporting committee: Committee on the Environment, Regional Planning and Local Authorities (Doc. 6912).
Committee for opinion: Committee on Science and Technology.
Reference to committee: Doc. 6572 and Reference No. 1774 of 11 March 1992.
Draft opinion approved on 28 September 1993.
Secretaries to the committee: Mr Perin and Ms Meunier.
1 1See Doc. 6912.
2 1Plastics now constitute approximately 10% of household waste. This percentage is nevertheless misleading, not reflection the lightning speed of growth in recent decades (See Table I).