Meeting in Ghent on 12-13 July, EU environment ministers will debate a study by the Belgian EU Presidency on "sustainable materials management" (SMM).
The study, obtained by EurActiv, advocates "a fully integrated way of addressing materials use" in manufacturing in order to limit resource depletion and air, soil and water pollution.
"If we carry on using materials the way we are now, this will ultimately result in the depletion of raw materials and harm the environment," the Belgian EU Presidency said.
The objective is to move from waste policies to "materials policies," which cover the full life-cycle of products and manufactured goods, from the extraction of raw materials to product design, manufacture, consumption and disposal.
"A policy that is limited to waste prevention and recycling is insufficient to significantly reduce Europe's [ecological] footprint and avoid a further depletion of natural capital," the study argues.
As an alternative, the Belgian EU Presidency wants to promote the concept of "sustainable materials management," a broader notion which covers the whole life-cycle of products in a so-called "cradle-to-cradle" approach.
"SMM, as the Belgian Presidency wants to promote it, aims at the efficient and environmentally responsible use of materials, independent of whether they are raw materials, products or waste," reads an introduction to the study.
European 'platform' to explore way forward
At the Ghent ministerial meeting, Belgium will propose to establish a "European platform on sustainable materials management" that would be tasked with developing a "joint future vision on SMM".
"That's new on the European agenda. It is the first time we have discussed about that," said a high-level source in Belgium. "We want Council conclusions which can be useful for 2011," when the European Commission is expected to adopt a roadmap on resource efficiency, the official added.
When established, the platform will "launch experiments which go beyond established practices" in areas such as waste collection and recycling, re-use and repair or recovery of industrial residues.
In total, the study has identified twelve areas where the SMM approach could be applied, including closed loop industry systems for residues (of construction waste for example), biomaterials, cradle-to-cradle or IT systems that track the logistics supply chain. "IT can give enterprises tools to effectively manage supply chains and to monitor the product and material flow up- and downstream, in turn allowing for material savings," the study says.
'Scattered' EU policy framework
To remedy the current "scattered" EU policy landscape, the study advocates a realignment of all EU initiatives on waste, natural resources, raw materials, integrated product policy, eco-design and sustainable consumption and production.
It also argues for better integration of sustainable materials management with broader policy areas such as agriculture, competitiveness and innovation.
"Policymakers in different policy fields – such as environment, energy, climate, innovation and economics – have to work together more intensively to make our material use more sustainable," the Belgian Presidency argues.
"At EU level, structures should be set up to allow for systematic and institutionalised cooperation on SMM challenges, both within the European Commission and in the Council."