Product design policy will be key to circular economy, EU says

As of 2021, all TVs, fridges, washing machines, dishwashers and lighting products placed on the EU market will have to meet minimum design requirements aimed at extending their lifetime. [Shutterstock]

As the European Union seeks to transition to a ‘circular economy’, the policy focus in 2021 will turn to products: how they are designed, and why so many seem to be made to throw away.

The European Commission wants to transform the way we produce and consume products. And when an initial strategy to do so wasn’t delivering as much as hoped, the EU executive gave it another shot earlier this year.

The ‘Circular Economy action plan 2.0’, unveiled in March, is a renewed attempt to change the way we produce, use and dispose of goods. Like its predecessor launched five years ago, it doesn’t contain hard legislation yet but instead sets a series of goals, like halving municipal waste by 2030, some of which will be translated later on in hard legal requirements.

Main ideas include giving consumers a new “right to repair” for computers and smartphones, establishing green criteria for construction products, updating existing resource use indicators, and planning a Sustainable Product Policy Framework.

EU unveils circular economy plan 2.0, drawing mixed reactions

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.

Speaking at a EURACTIV event last week, Paola Migliorini, a senior official at the European Commission’s environment department, gave details about how the EU executive will roll out policy in the course of 2021.

“The commission wants to come forward with what we call a sustainable product policy framework,” she said. “It will be made up of a series of initiatives and legislation, and in the main bulk of the legislative proposal we are planning to present toward the end of 2021 the Sustainable Products Initiative, which will expand the scope of the Ecodesign Directive.”

Speakers at the EURACTIV event applauded the Commission’s intention to put the Ecodesign Directive at the centre of the EU’s sustainable product policy.

“80% of environmental challenges originate at the design phase,” said Justin Wilkes, executive director of ECOS, an environmental organisation dedicated to standardisation.

“That’s why ecodesign, as a proven effective tool from an economic, consumer, and environmental perspective, can be used not only for energy-related products but across other sectors. So I think it’s very valuable that the Commission has proposed to expand the Ecodesign Directive.”

We need more durable and reparable products to build a circular economy

The time is right for EU policy-makers to take measures to ensure products placed on the market are designed to last and be repaired, write Stéphane Arditi and Chloé Fayole.

Among industry, many actually share that view. Lynette Chung is chief sustainability officer at German chemical firm Covestro: “A value chain perspective here is essential, because it will be different depending on where our materials go in,” she said. “We see a sustainable product policy as an opportunity for us to bring forward even more solutions to the market.”

But Migliorini said that the new framework isn’t going to be based solely on the Ecodesign Directive. The Sustainable Products Policy will be linked intimately with another proposal due to come out in mid 2021, which “will empower consumers by providing more information to them and establishing a right to repair”.

Another legislative proposal will address false green claims. “It will provide tools for companies to indicate the environmental footprint of their product and inform consumers about the benchmark of the footprint of the product they are about to purchase.” Together, Migliorini said, this package of proposals will be the tools that can deliver the targets envisioned in the Circular Economy Action Plan.

In the European Parliament, many lawmakers have welcomed the Commission’s focus on product design, said Jessica Polfjärd, a Swedish centre-right MEP affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP).

However, she said that new waste and recycling targets due to come out next year will need to take conditions on the ground into account. “We need ambitious targets that are based on realities and the diversity in different European economies,” she stressed.

The European Parliament is likely to call for EU targets for the use of recycled raw materials in new products – particularly in packaging. Dutch centrist MEP Jan Huitema, who is in charge of the circular economy action plan in the Parliament, told EURACTIV earlier this month that “products need to have a mandatory amount of recycled material, so that increases the demand for secondary raw materials.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Migliorini said the Commission was indeed considering to impose mandatory targets for recycled materials in packaging.

“We will look into some of the targets. We will have hopefully some elements that will make recycled content mandatory, and some of the targets for this.”

That public consultation will be open until 6 January.

Brussels plans new EU packaging rules to cut waste

The European Commission has started gathering views from EU member states, the packaging industry and online retailers ahead of a comprehensive review of EU rules on packaging waste, part of efforts to boost reuse and recycling rates by 2030.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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