How the EU’s Cohesion Fund can support the circular economy

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

Central and Eastern European countries tend to perform significantly worse than the EU average in terms of waste management. They could benefit the most from the EU's Cohesion Fund, writes Janek Vahk. [Jaroslav A. Polák / Flickr]

The EU’s next Cohesion Fund for regional development should prioritise investments into waste management systems focused on prevention, re-use, separate collection and recycling – not on incineration, argues Janek Vahk.

Janek Vahk is the development and policy coordinator at Zero Waste Europe, an environmental NGO.

The EU budget is a hot topic these days, as discussions on the design of the future cohesion policy are underway in the European Parliament. For recipient countries, the decision on where to invest the €273 billion of cohesion funds could be a real game-changer in terms of how they deal with their waste as the limited funding available will determine the direction that countries are moving to.

This is particularly relevant for the Central and Eastern European countries that tend to perform significantly worse in terms of waste management than the EU average: with relatively low recycling rates (around 20%) and higher reliance on landfilling, these countries risk to miss the objectives of the Waste Framework Directive for 2020.

In addition, the recent approval of the Circular Economy package brings new obligations and objectives for the member states that should allow them to advance towards a circular economy.

Among other obligations, it requires countries to strengthen separate collection for all waste streams, increase recycling to at least 65% and put in place a separate collection scheme for biowaste. This could be a real opportunity for Central and Eastern European countries to drive better environmental standards in waste management.

Experience shows that the most cost-effective way to achieve landfill diversion and increase recycling is by maximising separate collection schemes and recycling systems, rather than investing in waste incineration.

Indeed, although waste incineration may reduce landfilling, it doesn’t contribute to increased recycling – on the contrary, it tends to lock recyclables at the lower levels of the waste hierarchy. This is already the case in a number of Central and Eastern European countries, such as Estonia, where more than half of municipal waste is burned.

It is therefore essential that the next Cohesion Fund prioritises investments into the development of waste management systems that are focused on waste prevention, re-use, separate collection and recycling, in line with the long-term goals of EU waste and Circular Economy legislation.

In this sense, the Commission’s proposal to exclude funding for facilities dealing with the treatment of residual waste will support this goal. This proposal can play a huge role in leveraging change in national waste management systems, by supporting relevant projects on prevention, re-use and recycling.

Countries like Slovenia, with above 55% recycling rates, show that with the right investments and the relevant technical support, the transition towards a circular economy can be achieved quickly.

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