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Spain is grappling with an ever-growing mountain of waste, 64 percent of which is plastic in terms of weight. Every year in this country, they go through 5 billion plastic straws, 1.5 billion disposable coffee cups and 207 million disposable packaging containers. With these numbers, Spain accounts for 10 percent of all single-use plastic waste in the European Union. The country is (after Turkey) the biggest contributor to plastic pollution in the Mediterranean and one of the top four plastic polluters in the EU.

Besides the fact that plastic is a major threat to the environment, cleaning it up also costs a lot of money. According to calculations by Eunomia Research and Consulting, making streets and coastlines plastic-free costs Spanish municipalities – and by extension taxpayers – 529 million euros per year.

EU directives

At present, these costs are still being paid for with public money, but under EU legislation, manufacturers of this packaging will have to start footing te bill for these sums from the end of 2024 onwards. Spain failed to meet the EU target of recycling 50 percent of its waste by 2020. The country stalled at 34.7 percent. To give you an idea: the percentage in the Netherlands stands at 56.8.

‘No policy’

Carlos Arribas, head of waste management at ‘Ecologists in Action’, told the Spanish newspaper EL PAIS, “Our country is lacking any kind of policy when it comes to waste. If that doesn’t change very soon, we’re not going to meet the directives. Not now and not in the future.”

The conclusion reached by the European Commission in an analysis of Spain’s corona recovery plan is just as merciless: “Waste management remains a challenge… Spain is one of the countries that has failed to meet the target for recycling waste. The directive is that 55 percent of waste should be recycled by 2025. Spain must take significant measures to ensure the prevention, minimization, sorting, reuse and recycling of waste.”

Our country is lacking any kind of policy when it comes to waste. If that doesn’t change very soon, we’re not going to meet the directives. Not now and not in the future.”

Carlos Arribas, head of waste management at Ecologists in Action

New waste law

In order to be able to meet these directives in the future, 850 million euros have been set aside in the Spanish recovery plan for better waste management and a stronger circular economy. In addition, after lengthy deliberation, the Spanish government adopted a reform of the law on waste and contaminated soils last week.

According to César Sánchez, introducing a deposit-refund system (DRS) is the most important victory. Sánchez is director of communications at Retorna, a non-profit initiative comprising environmental NGOs, recycling companies and trade unions. “85 percent of the Spanish population is in favor, NGOs have been asking for it for decades, and 35 million plastic containers disappear into landfills or the environment every year. There are so many reasons why DRS is a must, and now it is finally coming. For us, this is a huge victory.”

Another important point, in keeping with EU legislation, is that the responsibility of plastic manufacturers is set to rise: in the future, they will bear the cost of the waste, instead of Spanish taxpayers.

More trash, more cash

The arrival of the law has taken a lot of hard work. Research by Changing Markets shows that it is precisely the large waste management companies, Ecoembes* at the forefront, that are thwarting attempts to make Spanish waste management more sustainable.

Ecoembes has a monopoly in Spain on the collection of plastic packaging thanks to agreements with local and regional governments that finance waste collection. “The influence of Ecoembes on the waste management system in Spain is enormous,” says Ximenas Banegas, campaign manager at Changing Markets.

It is also important to understand the revenue model. As a ‘Producer Responsibility Organization‘ (PRO), the company relies on licensing fees which are based on the weight of plastic packaging. This means that Ecoembes stands to profit when more plastic packaging enters the market because they then generate more revenue. In other words, in Spain, the waste management system is currently regulated in such a way that more packaging on the market means more money for Ecoembes.  

The principal shareholders of Ecoembes (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone, Colgate and Nestlé, among others) are also major manufacturers of plastic packaging. These companies are not only responsible for the production of the waste that Ecoembes is tasked with managing, but also hold the most important positions of responsibility within the organization. “As such, Ecoembes plays a dual role: on the one hand, it acts as an NGO and a flag-bearer for environmental protection; on the other hand, it vigorously lobbies against policies that are not put in place for the sake of the industry – especially when it comes to the introduction of a DRS,” the Changing Markets report finds.

Long way to go

In part due to a report by the Tragsatec research firm, which was commissioned by the government, the new Waste Act has now become a reality after all. The introduction of a deposit-refund system will give Spain a big push in the right direction towards meeting the EU targets. For example, according to the study, the introduction of a deposit-refund system will lead to 2193 tonnes (or 122 trucks with a load capacity of 18 tonnes) less litter ending up in the environment each year.

As to whether Spain will actually meet the EU targets, it is hard to say, Sánchez feels. “We have a long way to go. Figures show that less than 25 percent of waste is separated. To meet the EU directives, we need a more ambitious law on the mandatory collection of biowaste, or targets for prevention and recycling. But, it is a step in the right direction all the same.”

The Balearic Islands: top of the class

While a new Waste Law was passed nationwide a few weeks ago, the Balearic Islands (an archipelago of which Ibiza and Mallorca are two main islands) took matters into their own hands back in 2019. Since the region is a popular destination for tourists, it has the highest waste consumption in Spain (763 kilos compared to a national average of 475 kilos per person per year). To remedy this, an ambitious waste law was introduced two years ago, a deposit-refund system was introduced and single-use plastic containers were banned.

Plastic Free Balearics‘ developed a tool that helps hospitality companies find good alternatives to these single-use containers. “More and more companies are complying with the Waste Act and European directives. That’s good obviously, but alternatives aren’t necessarily good,” cautions project manager Myrto Pispini. With the anti-greenwashing tool, the initiative wants to warn against ‘false’ solutions such as bioplastics and suggest ‘ honest’ alternatives that have a lower impact on the environment. Hopefully the other 16 autonomous regions will learn their lesson from the experience of this pioneering region, because time is running out in their struggle with the ever-growing mountain of plastic.

* Ecoembres did not respond to requests for interviews from IO.

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