The kidnapping of the yellow container

To this point, we have seen the importance of recycling different types of waste that we produce (glass, paper, metal and plastic) which are growing every day.

In waste management, many of the waste laws and programs that have a bearing on the collection and treatment model are based on two important principles:

Extended Producer Responsibility Principle

The producers[1] of goods (which later become waste) must pay the collection and treatment management costs of this type of garbage. For example, water bottling companies or yogurt producers should take charge of the collection and treatment of water or yogurt packaging, respectively.

Polluter Pays Principle

Those responsible for environmental pollution must assume the costs derived from said contamination. For waste, this principle is usually expressed as the extended producer responsibility scheme. This principle is also known as “Pay as you throw” (PAYT).

Polluter pays

To implement the Packaging Waste European Directive[2] and its principles, Spain decided to choose a Collection and Recovery System (CRS)for packaging producers (producers, packers, and suppliers) and to create a company to manage it: Ecoembes. Another of the possible options was the DRS model: Deposit, Refund System.

With the CRS model, a producer who wants to put a product on the market must pay a management fee (collection and treatment) to Ecoembes, although this rate is usually applied to the price of the product and, consequently, to the customer.

Ecoembes a non-profit company but it has investee profit-oriented companies. In large[3] numbers, participation is as follows: 55% packaging companies (Nestlé, Pescanova, Coca-Cola, etc.), 20% commercial distribution companies (Corte Inglés, Carrefour, Mercadona) and 20% companies producing raw materials (Tetra Pack, Hispania SA, ARPAL …).

On the other hand, to facilitate the collection of these containers, Ecoembes makes agreements or arrangements with the autonomic regions so that the municipalities can perform the collection (in a yellow container) and treatment of the packaging, in exchange for economic retribution. It’s a kind of outsourcing, the objective being efficiency and preventing the cities from becoming overcrowded with different packing bin types and trucks.


Up to here, the model seems valid. However, at some point in the yellow container’s implementation, it became associated with only packaging waste. Subsequently, no plastic or metal object/waste which is not packaging is recycled, even though it’s the same material. It is estimated that 70% of plastic waste is packaging[4] and the remaining 30% are miscellaneous objects (toys, entertainment, and sports goods, cleaning tools).

Waste treatment does not understand packaging. The packaging recycling facilities manage waste, such as the types mentioned before (PET, ALU, PP, PE, among others) and treatment is carried out per material. In fact, many non-packaging plastics are recycled with packaging, without any technical issues.

Recycling does not understand packaging, only materials

Besides, the European Directives require waste management to be implemented separately, by material type, not by packaging. Let me quote, textually, Article 11 “Re-use and Recycling” from Directive 2008/98/EC on waste:

“Member States shall take measures to promote high quality recycling and, to this end, shall set up separate collections of waste where technically, environmentally and economically practicable and appropriate to meet the necessary quality standards for the relevant recycling sectors […] by 2015 separate collection shall be set up for at least the following: paper, metal, plastic and glass.”

I’m not sure when this happened, but what’s for sure is that packages kidnapped the yellow container. Fortunately, I think we can set it free … without paying any ransom.

At some point in history, the yellow container became exclusively for packaging


I neither aim to be negative nor to radically change the entire established recycling system… or maybe I do, and maybe we should switch to the DRS model, I have my doubts… However, we can do better: we could start by including any plastic or metal object –waste– in the yellow container, even if it’s not packaging. By maintaining the current model, with a composition analysis of the waste in the yellow container (this is already currently done, it’s called characterization), Ecoembes would only have to cover the cost of the packaging treatment. Why should we overload citizens with the responsibility and hassle of differentiating between what’s packaging and what’s not, knowing if this waste has paid the fee, or not? It would be easier to differentiate by materials (plastic and metal). Also, this way, other waste (non-packaging) would enter the recycling circuit optimally.

Want to know more?

 The book Stop garbage. The truth about recycling, Alex Pascual, February 2019

 Pay-as-you-throw system Guide (ENG)

i Directive 2008/98/CE on waste (ENG)

i Blog article: “Mortgage of packaging waste” (CAST)

i Plastic bottle deposit return scheme could save England’s councils £35m a year, The Guardian (ENG)

i DRS proposals (CAST)

i Study against DRS and supporting (RCS) (CAST)

i Ecoembes (CAST)

i Ecoembes is not what it seems (CAST)

[1] Directive 2008/98/ EC, on waste and repealing specific Directives, articles 8 and 15
[2] European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC of 20 December 1994 on packaging and packaging waste. The Directive refers to Return, Collection and Recovery systems. The Spanish system it is called, literal translation, as Integrated Management System (in Spanish Sistema Integrado de Gestión o SIG).

[3] “The packaging waste mortgage,” magazine El Ecologista, web version Nº 84, Ecologistas en Acción.

[4] Directive 2008/98/ EC, on waste and repealing specific Directives, articles 8 and 15

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