Mirror entries in EU (hazardous) waste law. Campos Sánchez-Bordona AG in Verlezza et al. I.a. a useful reminder of the true meaning of precaution.

Joined Cases C-487/C-489/17 Alfonso Verlezza et al, in which Campos Sánchez-Bordona AG opined  last week, (no version in English available) is one of those rather technical EU environmental law cases which for that reason risks being overlooked by many. This is even more the case in EU waste law. Many of its provisions are subject to criminal law sanctions, hence encouraging defendants to take its application to the most intricate of corners so as to avoid a criminal conviction.

Verlezza et al concerns the implementation by Italy of a notoriously tricky part of EU waste law: the determination of wastes as being ‘hazardous’. Clearly, these wastes are subject to a range of stricter measures than ordinary wastes. Interestingly, while these wastes are more dangerous than ordinary wastes, they are often also more attractive to waste industries: for as secondary raw materials they may have high value (one can think of cartridges, batteries, heavy metals).

Protracted to and fro at the time between the European Commission and the Member States plus Parliament (which I explain in relevant chapter of my Handbook of EU Waste law; which I am pleased to note the AG refers to), eventually led to a regime with two or if one likes three categories: wastes considered per se hazardous; and wastes which may be considered hazardous or not, depending on whether or not they display hazardous properties in the case at issue (hence three categories: hazardous per se; non-hazardous and hazardous in concreto). This latter category are the so-called ‘mirror entries’: wastes originating from the same source which depending on the specifics of the case, may be hazardous or not.

Wastes produced by households (‘domestic waste’) are not considered hazardous. However the AG emphasises correctly that this exemption from the hazardous waste regime (via Article 20 of the waste framework Directive, 2008/98) does not apply to the case at issue, given that the ‘domestic’ wastes concerned have already been mechanically sorted. It is the qualification of the waste residues following sorting that needs to be resolved.

The mirror entries are the result of heated debate between the Institutions. The EC was hesitant to provide a binding list given the need for individual assessment; Council and EP were looking for regulatory certainty. In the end, Member States may (indeed have to)  consider waste as hazardous when the material displays one or more of the hazardous properties listed in Annex to the EU list of waste. This also requires the Member States to issue a procedure which guides this assessment.  It is the specifics of the Italian procedure (producers have to classify specific streams of waste as either hazardous or not; they have to carry out the necessary scientific tests; they are bound by the precautionary principle) which have triggered the case at issue.

At 19 the AG refers to the discussion in Italian scholarship: one part among others on the basis of the precautionary principle defends a reversal of the burden of proof: waste in the mirror entries is considered hazardous unless industry proves its non-hazardous characteristics; the other part proposes that scientific analysis needs to determine hazardousness in each specific case (quoting the sustainable development of the sector in support).

The AG opines that the Italian modus operandi needs to be given the green light, among others referring to the recent April 2018 EC guidance on wastes classification and the criteria defined in the Directive, which render a waste hazardous: producers of waste are perfectly capable indeed in the Directive’s set-up have to assess the hazardous character of the waste and the Italian regulations are a capable way of ensuring this.

The defendants’ ultimate argument that the precautionary principle should allow them to consider waste as hazardous even without such assessment, also fails: scientific assessment is able to determine a substance’s hazardous characteristics.  Defendants’ approach would lead to all mirror entries being defined as hazardous. The Directive’s principle of cost benefit analysis ensures this does not lead to excessive testing-  proportionate testing for properties will do the job. (It may be surprising that the defendants make this argument; but remember: in a criminal procedure all arguments are useful to try and torpedo national law or practice upon which a prosecution is based; without a valid law,, no prosecution).

This latter part of the Opinion, related to the precautionary principle, is a useful reminder to its opponents (who came out in force following this summer’s mutagenesis ruling; for excellent review of which see KJ Garnett here), of the principle’ true meaning.

Geert.

Handbook of EU Waste law, 2nd ed. 2015, OUP, Chapter 2, Heading 2. ff (to which the AG refers).

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