Commentary. A European regulation focuses on reusing more packaging materials rather than recycling them. But once again industrialists are blackmailing us with a false choice: save the planet or save jobs.

Waste reuse movement confronts an unlikely opponent: the recycling industry

“More than 700,000 companies in Italy are at risk of being crippled by the proposed European regulation on the management of packaging that the Commission is due to present soon,” claims an article by Sara Deganello published on October 30 in Il Sole 24 Ore with the headline “Packaging, EU about-face puts 6 million jobs at risk.”

“This is a new regulation, already sketched out in Brussels, that freezes the packaging recycling strategy to focus on reuse. The industry and service sector in Italy is on high alert. The change in strategy hits our country’s system, whose recycling industry is the foremost in Europe. Between producers, industrial users and traders, the European about-face could possibly impact 6.3 million employees and a productive sector with a turnover of €1,850 billion.”

Here we go again. Once more we are blackmailed with a false choice: either environmental protection or jobs. It was the playbook for ILVA in Taranto and elsewhere. Nonetheless, we cannot possibly forget that Italy, as a member state of the European Union, has approved and is obliged to implement the European Green Deal – finally approved in December 2019, after years of debate and back-and-forth with political and industrial stakeholders – which is based on a number of pillars, one of which is “mobilizing industry for a clean and circular economy.”

Regarding this pillar, in March 2020 the European Commission adopted the Action Plan for the Circular Economy (also after years of debates and back-and-forth with industry in the sectors concerned), which includes legislative action to make products as durable, repairable, reusable, rebuildable and refurbishable, and, finally, recyclable as possible, in order to minimize the amount of waste produced that enters the economic system. This also means minimizing the amount of waste that has to be recycled.

Thus, both the industrial system and the political forces have known for years that things were moving in the direction of minimizing all waste, whether it was meant to be recycled or disposed of. All of this has been progressively reinforced and supported by European legislative actions and regulations already in place or in the process of being passed, such as the “right to repair,” the mandatory recoverable deposit on container sales (which allows containers to be reused instead of recycled or sent to the landfill), measures that encourage the rental and exchange of products, incentives for the sale of bulk, unpackaged ones, and so on. Not to mention the ban of a whole range of disposable plastic products, a prohibition we tried to skirt around and are now paying fines for. And if all the signals (and legal obligations) were not enough, the consumer products industry is beginning to show signs that it intends to change its line and adapt to the idea that it must produce less, but better.

Thus, for example, we have Zara, H&M, Balenciaga and Jimmy Choo, Valentino, Gucci, Levi’s, Burberry, and many other brands which are beginning to align themselves with pioneers such as Patagonia, inviting consumers to return a good, in this case an article of clothing, once they’re no longer using it or are likely to dispose of it. In this way, the item is kept away from the landfill and its life is extended (if repaired) or renewed (if resold or if the raw material is reused). It’s true that for many of these brands it amounts to nothing more than pure greenwashing, but this too is being addressed by the European Commission, preventing it through appropriate measures so that soon it will be difficult to keep doing it.

In short, invoking the image of a future in which there will be more and more waste to recycle is a foolish anachronism and a great strategic blunder, because the amount of waste being produced is bound to decrease. Yet that is exactly what the Italian recycling industry is doing, forcing the various governments, via the usual practice of blackmailing with lost jobs, to slow down or block the transition from the current linear economy to a circular economy, challenging Europe’s decisions and cutting Italy off from an irreversible process to which everyone else is adapting.

Furthermore, there is no loss of jobs, because just as many jobs are being created in this process, if not more. Are we sure that jobs are lost if instead of re-melting a glass bottle to make a new one (with all the energy consumed) we wash it and refill it (with much less energy required compared to melting)? Are we sure that jobs are lost if instead of recycling packaging we reuse it over and over again, given the whole process of collecting, sending to a control center, cleaning and redistributing the packaging? Many similar examples can be given.

In general, it can be said that the practices of reuse, resale, rental, repair, and rebuilding come with significant employment growth compared to recycling the product after its first short – and often single – use, as shown by numerous studies produced by the European Commission. So let us be careful not to be swayed by partisan interests (understandable as such). A competent and far-sighted government should organize things in such a way as to prepare for a smooth transition to the circular economy, not just limiting itself to incentivizing recycling (which is being done, commendably so, and is also a part of the PNRR), but, at the same time, incentivizing the reduction of the amount of waste produced and thus the amount of waste to be recycled (and there are no signs of this happening).

This is also because, as we must not forget, recycling is not free: it costs energy (i.e., gas and electricity, just to highlight the sore point of the effects of the war in Ukraine), pollutant emissions, physical resources. Less than those required by virgin material, true, but still significant amounts. On the other hand, extending the life of products costs nothing.

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