EU unveils circular economy plan 2.0, drawing mixed reactions

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. [European Union, 2020 Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

The European Commission unveiled its new circular economy action plan on Wednesday (11 March), confirming the EU’s intention of halving municipal waste by 2030, and suggesting to offer consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones.

The Commission roadmap, unveiled today, doesn’t contain hard legislation at this stage. Rather, it outlines future measures aimed at cutting waste in areas like textiles, buildings and electronic equipment, which have so far been unaddressed at the EU level.

Some of the Commission’s ideas are sure to generate controversy. Apple Inc., for example, is likely to resist plans to mandate a universal charger for mobile phones. And a new “right to repair”, although likely to prove popular with consumers, will not go down easily with manufacturers of electronic devices.

But the Commission is adamant that going fully circular is the only way forward – not just for the planet but also for business. Applying circular economy principles can increase the EU’s GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 and create around 700,000 new jobs, the Commission said in a statement.

“To achieve climate-neutrality by 2050, to preserve our natural environment, and to strengthen our economic competitiveness, requires a fully circular economy,” said Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s vice-president in charge of overseeing the European Green Deal.

Europe’s economy is still mostly linear, Timmermans pointed out, with only 12% of materials recycled and brought back into the economy.

“Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only,” the Dutchman pointed out, saying the Commission’s new circular economy plan aims to “transform the way products are made and empower consumers to make sustainable choices”.

Half of total greenhouse gas emissions come from resource extraction and processing, the Commission said in the statement, warning that achieving Europe’s climate-neutrality target by 2050 “is not possible” without transitioning to a fully circular economy.

“We only have one Planet Earth and yet, by 2050 we will be consuming as if we had three,” added Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment Commissioner. “The new plan will make circularity the mainstream in our lives and speed up the green transition of our economy,” he promised.

Tighter waste and recycling laws are central to the Commission’s plan, with new targets due to be presented as part of a broader revision of EU waste rules. But new targets will only be tabled after a full cost-benefit analysis, explained Sinkevičius.

LEAK: EU's new circular economy plan aims to halve waste by 2030

The European Commission will aim to “absolutely decouple” economic growth from natural resource use in a draft circular economy action plan due to be unveiled in March.

Highlights of the plan include:

  • A revision of EU waste legislation aiming at halving municipal waste by 2030, including new targets to reduce packaging waste, and “mandatory essential requirements” for all packaging placed on the market. The Commission’s aim is to make all packaging placed on the EU market reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.
  • A ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’ to promote longer product lifetimes through reusability and reparability as well as upgradeability of components and software to avoid premature obsolescence. This will include a “right to repair” for products like smartphones and computers, by 2021.
  • Promoting circular textiles, with EU guidance on the separate collection of textile waste, which EU countries will have to ensure by 2025.
  • Mandatory requirements on use of recycled plastics in areas like packaging, construction materials and vehicles. Restrictions will be envisaged on the intentional adding of microplastics.
  • A “strategy for a sustainable built environment” to promote circularity principles throughout the whole lifecycle of buildings. This will include green criteria for public procurement in construction.
  • New rules to improve the collection and recycling rates of all batteries and ensure the recovery of valuable materials, sustainability requirements for batteries, the level of recycled content in new batteries.
  • A new EU-wide target on food waste reduction as part of the EU Farm-to-Fork Strategy.
  • Updating existing resource use indicators, reflecting the interlinkages between circularity, climate neutrality and the zero pollution ambition.

No target on cutting resource use

The action plan builds on a 2015 circular economy roadmap launched under the previous Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker. Highlights there included new targets on recycling and an EU-wide ban on single-use plastics, which became one of the hallmarks of the Juncker Commission.

But while environmentalists praised the Commission’s efforts, they also pointed out that previous circular EU economy plans have failed to reduce Europe’s overall consumption of natural resources and raw materials.

The new plan will leave them disappointed in this regard: while an overall resource consumption target was considered in earlier drafts, the objective does not appear in the final version of the circular economy action plan.

Another area of disappointment is the lack of measures for energy-intensive industries like steel, cement and chemicals, which environmentalist say would benefit the most from adopting circular approaches.

“By adopting fully circular economy models, these sectors could reduce Europe’s CO2 emissions by 300Mt annually until 2050,” said Carbon Market Watch, a green NGO.

“Circularity should be one of the main pillars of the industrial transformation, but there is a disconnect on how the Commission approaches this. This gap must be closed in order to reap the full benefits of reusing products and recycling materials,” said Agnese Ruggiero from Carbon Market Watch.

Circular economy erected as ‘number one priority’ of European Green Deal

The circular economy, including new waste and recycling laws, will represent “half” of the EU’s effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and will be erected as “the number one priority” of the upcoming European Green Deal, officials have said.

Some NGOs enthusiastic, others not

Green activists were surprisingly divided in their assessment of the Commission’s circular economy plan.

While the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) hailed the plan as “the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal ever put forward to reduce the environmental and climate impact of our products and economic activities,” others called it “a beautiful patchwork” with no real sense of direction.

“The CEAP is a nice patchwork of initiatives pointing in the right direction. Now the EU has to glue the pieces together to ensure that circular zero waste activities are more convenient and economic than the current, failing, linear ones,” said Joan Marc Simon from Zero Waste Europe, a green NGO.

The EEB underlined the Commission’s emphasis on “a truly responsible value chain, from product design and manufacturing to reducing toxicity and cutting waste”. The EEB also welcomed plans to address specific product groups like textiles, electronics, batteries, construction and packaging.

“The Circular Economy Action Plan can be a turning point for sustainability and climate action in Europe, which will hopefully inspire the rest of the world. It shows that the systemic change the people and the planet need is within reach,” said the EEB’s Stéphane Arditi.

“Now the EU institutions and the governments must turn these promises into laws and measures to maximise carbon emissions and resource savings,” Arditi said.

While praising the strategy, the EEB nevertheless regretted that no target was set to reduce the EU’s overall resource use. Waste prevention targets for businesses and industries were also missing, it added.

“Without binding EU-wide targets, governments risk losing momentum and neglecting the fundamental objective of reducing our consumption footprint,” the EEB said.

> Read: Full circular economy action plan, press statement, and Q&A.

Last year the EU slashed single-use plastics. Now it needs to do the same for all other resources

Last year the EU passed ambitious new laws to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics. That same thinking now needs to be applied to the economy as a whole, argues Meadhbh Bolger, saying Europe can get started by setting targets in its upcoming Circular Economy Action Plan.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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