The European Commission issued proposals yesterday (2 July) to increase recycling and phase out landfilling, with a series of legally-binding measures aimed at nudging the EU towards a lean "circular economy".

The circular economy is defined as an economic model that produces virtually no waste, with raw materials being re-used and recycled continually within a closed loop.

The package, adopted yesterday by the Commission, contains a wide-ranging list of legally binding targets:

  • a 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030;
  • an 80% recycling target for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030;
  • and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.

The document also lists a series of “aspirational” goals, which are not legally enforceable:

  • a phase out of landfilling of all recoverable waste by 2030;
  • a 30% reduction of waste by 2025;
  • and a 30% fall in marine litter by 2020.

In the new measures, the Commission has proposed to use resource productivity - or gross domestic product (GDP) relative to raw material consumption - as its official indicator of resource efficiency.

Tense debate ahead

The package is now being forwarded to the European Parliament and EU member states for adoption. The debate promises to be tense, with BusinessEurope, the EU employers' organisation representing the continent's companies, rejecting the idea of targets. "The use of resources should not be penalised," a spokesperson said, rejecting the proposed resource productivity indicator. Countries like the UK have also rejected the notion that Europe should set targets for its member states.

The Commission, however, has lined up its own arguments. Achieving those targets, the Commission says, would create 580,000 new jobs in environmentally friendly businesses across the European Union while reducing demand for costly and scarce resources. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, 96% of respondents said that it was important for them that Europe uses its resources more efficiently.

Janez Potočnik, the European commissioner for the environment, said that the package “marked recognition that the growth path that we are pursuing is not the right one for Europe in the 21st century”. The commissioner has been outspoken about the EU’s “throw-way society”, in which products are continually and rapidly discarded without regard for the ecological cost of producing them.

"We are living with linear economic systems inherited from the 19th Century in the 21st Century world of emerging economies, millions of new middle class consumers, and inter-connected markets. If we want to compete we have to get the most out of our resources, and that means recycling them back into productive use, not burying them in landfills as waste," Potočnik said.

'New environmentally-friendly jobs'

Many businesses around Europe have sought to improve their environmental footprint, with the EU expected to improve its resource productivity by 15% between 2014 and 2030 under current legislation.

However, Potočnik said that the Commission needed to take action as the EU was still “locked into the model of a linear economy”, in which new materials are constantly sourced and products discarded, perhaps to landfill, after being used once.

The package aims to encourage businesses to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices, such as improving the longevity and reparability of their products, arguing that this can benefit them in the long-run.

The Commission says that by implementing such measures EU companies could save some €600 billion, or 8% of annual turnover.

“The shift towards a green economy is a tremendous opportunity for generating new, environmentally friendly jobs, while securing the sustainable well-being of future generations and contributing to recovery from the economic crisis,” said László Andor, the commissioner for employment and social affairs.

Andor said that the "economic transformation" defined in the document could also lead to jobs being replaced or redefined, with employment opportunities particularly present in the water, waste, energy efficiency and energy sectors, such as in renewables.

The EU is seeking to promote skills in these areas, and re-skilling, and has earmarked funding for more environmentally friendly employment.

The document also proposes measures to improve the resource efficiency of the construction and demolition sectors and to promote "industrial symbiosis", the sharing of by-products between industries.

The Commission is due to release proposals to tackle the issue of food waste within the next few weeks.