Circular economy success needs more than ambitious policies

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Voluntary commitments on recycling do not mean business as usual and can serve to build bridges between industry and lawmakers. [Shutterstock]

Voluntary agreements are hardly a new concept but transparent industry action on this front can drive real progress, particularly when it comes to the circular economy, writes MEP Martina Dlabajová.

Martina Dlabajová is a Czech MEP (ALDE) and is a vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Budget Control and a member of the VinylPlus Monitoring Committee. 

The importance of effective policies that tackle new economic realities has never been so clear as it is today. Our primary goal in Europe now should be to tackle the issues that are threatening to hinder the functioning of the Single Market, economic growth and our prosperity.

We should not only focus on introducing better and more effective policies to streamline legislation, but mainly to remove excessive administrative burdens. A lot of this has been addressed in the past but this time there has to be real progress.

Whereas previous environmental measures tended to be prescriptive in character, the new strategy should move more towards a ‘let’s work together’ approach. Ambitious policies alone will not bring an effective solution; continuing commitment and voluntary actions by industry are needed. To achieve this, better cooperation between industry and policymakers is inevitable.

One of the ways to make it happen are voluntary agreements. Even if they are hardly a new concept, voluntary agreements by industry seldom attract endorsement from policymakers. And that’s a pity because voluntary actions can drive real progress. The European Union’s Circular Economy Package is a case in point.

While policymakers debate the measures needed to boost sustainable design, reuse and recycling, they should not underestimate the role that voluntary commitments can play in advancing a more sustainable Europe. And this is particularly the case when it comes to the EU’s Plastics Strategy.

But first a word of caution: to succeed, any voluntary agreement by industry must be ambitious, transparent and action-oriented, with measurable targets. If an agreement fails to live up to these criteria, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

There can be no doubt: when it comes to sustainability, policy objectives require flexible tools to foster collective and effective approaches. Voluntary commitments by industry are a vital part of the toolbox to achieve a more sustainable Europe. Such commitments are not a substitute for policy; they complement it.

We need to raise our ambitions regarding sustainability and the circular economy. Policymakers often fear that business will continue as usual in the absence of “proper” enforcement or penalties.

However, self-regulation builds bridges between industry and government by motivating and driving business towards setting and achieving concrete sustainability targets.

“Voluntary” does not – and must not – mean “business as usual”. Quite the opposite: it is about taking action with a clear purpose in a way which allows for trial, error, achievements and success.

As the European Commission looks into the potential of voluntary agreements as a way to ensure an efficient Plastics Strategy, it should not overlook key principles which will ensure their effectiveness and avoid diminishing their value.

An effective voluntary commitment is not an easy option. It takes time, motivation, and dedication from the entire value chain. It should not be merely a communication tool but rather an action and results-oriented tool.

The commitment should encompass clear objectives with ambitious, measurable targets and deadlines. It should honour promises with concrete results, independent verification and transparent communication.

VinylPlus, the voluntary sustainable development programme of the European PVC industry is a good example of this approach. As a member of the VinylPlus Monitoring Committee I have seen for myself that self-regulation can be extremely effective.

For example, the voluntary programme is on track to achieve its target to recycle 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020, with nearly 600,000 tonnes recycled in 2016 alone. VinylPlus and its 200 companies also recently took another step towards their objectives after signing a new cooperation agreement with social partners.

The European Union has embraced the circular economy and its commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Effective voluntary commitments, in combination with ambitious policy, should drive this project.

There can be no better way of creating a fully-functioning, sustainable and circular economy than by bringing together everyone who will make this happen.

VinylPlus rightfully positions the circular economy as a unique opportunity for dialogue and collaboration between private and public entities to achieve the shared goal of long-term value creation, which will unlock the full potential of the circular economy.

An ambitious and inclusive framework for voluntary action is a challenge, but it is essential for achieving an effective circular economy and Plastics Strategy in Europe.