The European Commission recently adopted an ambitious new Circular Economy Package to help European businesses and consumers to make the transition to a stronger and more circular economy where resources are used in a more sustainable way. The proposed actions will contribute to “closing the loop” of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits for both the environment and the economy. This is a welcome development. However, as Hannah Gould writes in the Guardian, that many feel it could have been much more ambitious.
‘Weak’ and lacking ambition: critics respond to the EU’s new waste targets
The EU circular economy package that has been in the works for a year was finally launched yesterday. Promising to be a “more ambitious” set of proposals than the original plans that were controversially scrapped by the European commission a year ago, the new package has received a mixed reception.
Here we take a look at what the new package looks like, what the experts think and why we need a circular economy to start with.
What is the circular economy?
Our current economic model is described as linear – we take raw materials, use them to make things, dispose of those things, then repeat. It’s a model that depends on large quantities of cheap materials and energy, and it’s hugely unsustainable, particularly as the world’s population grows along with spending power.
The alternative is a circular economy, championed by solo round-the-world yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur and supported by other famous faces such as Will.i.am and Brad Pitt. The aim of a circular economy is to conserve valuable resources by getting the maximum use out of them, which means recovering materials and putting them to use again. And again.
A circular economy requires whole systems to change, creating business models that are not predicated on waste and which purposefully design products so they are suitable for repair, re-use or remake.
Is it all about the environment?
A circular economy would reduce our exploitation of natural resources and our impact on the climate, but its benefits go beyond the environment.
A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey and SUN (a non-profit organisation set up by the Deutsche Post Foundation) estimates that a circular economy could allow Europe to grow resource productivity by up to 3% annually, creating a net benefit of €1.8tn (£1.27tn) by 2030. The report also suggests that a circular economy would increase the average disposable income for EU households by €3,000 (£2,110).
What does the EU’s revised package propose?
We’ve extracted the top five takeaways:
- The original municipal waste recycling target of 70% by 2030 has been reduced to 65% and allows seven EU member states (Estonia, Greece, Croatia, Latvia, Malta, Romania and Slovakia) an extra five years to meet this target. This target is mandatory.
- The original target to recycle 80% of packaging waste by 2030 is now 75%.
- The commitment to reduce food waste by 30% between 2017 and 2025 has been scrapped.
- The obligation to separate collection of biowaste by 2025 can now be waived if it’s not considered technically, economically and environmentally possible. This is in line with existing separate collection requirements for other waste streams like paper, glass, metals, and plastic.
- Unlike the original package, the new package does address preventing the obsolescence of products. The commission has said it will initiate work to detect planned obsolescence and ways to address them through an independent testing programme.
What do the experts think?
There’s much criticism for what many see as a weak, watered-down package. It’s been “a wasted year for the circular economy” according to Friends of the Earth.
Bas Eickhout, vice-president of The Greens/European Free Alliance, agrees: “A year on from the initial decision by the commission to withdraw its original proposals, we have lost both time and ambition in the push to stimulate the circular economy at EU level”.
Others see some positives. Seb Dance, Labour MEP for London, said that the proposal contains some promising commitments, including policies to improve the way products are designed to stop waste from being produced in the first place. However he is disappointed about the lower level of ambition on food waste and landfill targets: “All too often industry and the environment are pitted against one another in a binary trade-off. This is a false choice”.
Joan Marc Simon, executive director of Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), points to minor improvements to the package such as the introduction of a system to monitor residual waste, and the promotion of reuse of electrical equipment, textiles and furniture, but on the whole, believes the package is too weak to get to a circular economy.
Similarly, Stéphane Arditi, policy manager for products and waste at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “the addition of some nice initiatives does not offset the fact that the legally binding core of the package, notably the waste targets, is weaker than in last year’s proposal.”
The European metals association, Eurometaux, has welcomed parts of the package. Director Guy Thiran said: “In particular, we support requirements to collect waste streams separately; to increase the recyclability of products; and to properly define ‘final recycling’”. Although he wants stronger measures to combat illegal waste shipments and called for mandatory certification for recyclers of certain waste streams.
Carlos Moedas, European commissioner for research, science and innovation said the targets set out a genuine path forward. “Because they are credible, these targets provide the private sector with the long-term certainty that will trigger investment and a lasting change in economic models.”
The package will now be discussed between the European commission, the European parliament and the European council before a final agreement sometime in 2016.