Strategies and instruments for improving the use of recycled materials
Background and central aspects of the topic
The responsible use of natural resources is one of the central objectives of environmental policy. For its industry, Germany also depends on the reliable availability of resources, the protection, economical use and recycling of which have become key political objectives. So far, however, only approx. 16 % of the raw materials needed for the German economy are covered by secondary raw materials. A closer look at the recycling statistics reveals that for some waste streams there is still considerable potential for the recycling of materials. This applies, for example, to plastic packaging, but also to waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), which account for one of the fastest growing waste volumes in Europe and, at the same time, can be considered as a storehouse of valuable substances – such as precious metals, rare earths – for which there is a threat of supply shortages in the medium term.
In addition to incentives that focus on waste producers and waste management companies, increasing the demand for recycled materials plays a significant role. The new European Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the main pillars of the European Green Deal, addresses this issue and states the objective of increasing the share of recycled materials in products, while ensuring performance and safety. A central challenge in creating a functioning EU market for secondary raw materials has so far been the (too) low oil prices, as a result of which recycled materials lose their price-related attractiveness compared to primary raw materials – a situation that recently has grown more acute during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, especially for plastic recycled materials. This is why the question of which instruments can effectively contribute to stimulating the demand for recycled materials is becoming increasingly urgent.
Depending on the respective waste stream and the intended use of the recycled materials, the degree of recovery of the individual substances and materials is determined by different factors. For example, technical feasibility slows down the expansion of recycling infrastructures for textile waste (fibre-to-fibre recycling). Furthermore, high personnel costs hinder both the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and the recovery of plastics from end-of-life vehicles. Moreover, there are high demands with regard to the quality of recycled materials when recycling plastics for use in the food industry.
Objectives and approach
Against this background, the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) is carrying out the TA project »Strategies and instruments for improving the use of recycled materials". The project is intended to explore three issues:
- What obstacles are slowing down the use of recycled materials?
- How can changes to the legal framework contribute to removing such obstacles?
- What possible instruments can contribute to increasing the demand?
The project consists of two phases. In the upcoming first project phase, promising sales markets and technologies as well as obstacles to the use of recycled materials will be investigated. Based on this, the second project phase will focus on policy instruments and legal options for action aiming at increasing the use of recycled materials.
In October 2021, three expert teams were commissioned for the first project phase. Each expert report shall provide a systematic overview of the state of the art and technological development trends in the recycling sector based on one type of waste (plastic packaging, construction waste, electronic waste), determine innovation fields in various stages of the recycling process and identify technical, legal and economic factors that hinder the use of recycled materials.
Publication on the topic
Themenkurzprofil Nr. 35
Jetzke, T.; Richter, S.