Experts: Circular economy targets should be adapted to each member state

The EU should assess what 'recycling' actually means before setting landfill and recycling targets. [Shutterstock]

The essence of the circular economy is not in numbers and targets, but in changing attitudes and seeking new business opportunities, experts said at a debate organised by Euractiv Czech Republic.

Before the EU decides on its recycling and landfill targets, the definition of what ‘recycling’ really is should be cleared up. Czech stakeholders were very clear on this issue at a roundtable debate on the circular economy, organized by Euractiv.cz.

“There is a difference between what individual member states report as ‘recycling’, and what really happens with the waste. Just putting waste into recycling bins does not mean that you recycle it,” director of the Czech association for district heating Martin Hájek said. He pointed out that a significant share of waste ends up being treated in a different way.

According to Eurostat, some countries such as Germany, Austria and Slovenia recycle between 52% and 66% of their municipal waste. The Czech Republic recycled around 30% in 2015. But the ratio would be different if definitions were harmonised, experts argued.

The Circular Economy Package, which is currently being negotiated among member states and in the European Parliament, shows the European Commission is aware of this problem.

“The Commission wants to align the definitions of municipal waste or recycling and increase the reliability of data and its consistency across the EU,” director of the Czech waste management association Petr Havelka said.

In December 2015, the Commission proposed a recycling target of 65% of municipal waste by 2030. But for the Parliament’s environment committee, that goal should be more ambitious. At the end of January, its members voted for a 70% target.

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How much can you recycle?

The EU should have ambitious targets, but the situation across the member states differs significantly, waste management expert and consultant Pavel Novák stressed at the debate.

While the Czech Republic and Slovakia produced about 300kg municipal waste per capita in 2014, the figure was significantly higher in Austria (more than 550kg) and Germany (more than 600kg).

People in economically advanced countries tend to use more household appliances and clothing, replacing them with new products more often. Such high consumption generates more space for recycling than in countries that produce less waste, Novák said.

Therefore, he added, different targets should apply to countries with different levels of municipal waste production.

According to the expert, it would also be reasonable to base the whole debate on waste management on a target aimed at minimal non-recyclable waste production.

Waste-to-energy: avoiding overcapacity

The round table took place in Pilsen, the county town of the Pilsen Region located in the western Czech Republic. Not far from the city, a new incineration plant (ZEVO Chotíkov) was put into operation last autumn.

Therefore, a large part of the debate focused on the question of waste-to-energy processes. In a communication presented at the end of January, the Commission warned against creating overcapacity for incinerators.

“It should be borne in mind that mixed waste as a feedstock for waste-to-energy processes is expected to fall as a result of separate collection obligations and more ambitious EU recycling targets,” the executive said.

“We should not follow the same path as Austria or Germany who have these overcapacities,” Ivo Kropáček of the Friends of the Earth Czech Republic stressed. He added that members states should not fund waste-to-energy technologies, but rather tax them.

Chairman of the board of Plzeňská teplárenská, which operates the incineration plant in Chotíkov, Tomáš Drápela said he did not expect new installations of this kind to be built in the Czech Republic in the future.

“We operate the plant with very low profits. There is no need to worry about new incinerators being built, because even the most optimistic scenario of the Czech Waste Act [which is currently being prepared] does not offer favourable conditions for investors. Not even municipal or local authorities would be able to implement such projects, either with subsidies or without them,” he said.

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New ways of thinking

The circular economy is not only about waste management but also the way we produce and use things, several experts underlined during the debate.

“It does not make sense when companies sell products which are not recyclable and we pretend to be able to recycle them. Industries will have to change their behaviour and produce things which are ready to be recycled. That is also part of the circular economy idea,” Kropáček said.

“We also need to prepare strategies for what will happen with the materials after we separate them,” Soňa Jonášová, director of the Institute for Circular Economy stressed.

“It is pointless to argue about who is able to separate more waste and whether it will happen in households or at waste separation lines. We have to talk about what we are able to produce with what we get,” she added.

According to European Parliament’s vice-president Pavel Telička (ALDE), the essence of the circular economy is changing people’s way of thinking. Member states should perceive the concept as an opportunity for new business models, he said in Pilsen.

“We should not see European targets as a dictate from Brussels but as an opportunity we can seize and become leaders in particular areas and sectors,” the Czech MEP appealed. He also said member states should provide fiscal incentives for investors who are ready to follow this path.