Campaigners worry at delays in EU sustainable product policy

Ecodesign policies look to increase the recyclability and reusability of products, which will be key to reach the European Commission's goal of 100% reusable and recyclable packaging by 2030 [Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock]

Ecodesign and energy labelling rules on everyday products could save consumers billions and help the EU meet its climate targets, but a lack of staff and resources means the European Commission is slow to put them forward, according to a report by environmental organisations.

Ecodesign helps improve the environmental impact of products by boosting their circularity and increasing their energy efficiency. Meanwhile, energy labelling helps consumers understand the impact of what they buy.

These policies already contributed to around half of the energy savings target for 2020, according to the European Commission, and they are expected to deliver a third of the cuts needed to reach Europe’s 2030 emission reduction target.

The EU executive is expected to table further policies on this, including the sustainable product initiative that will widen the scope of ecodesign rules to the “broadest possible range of products and make it deliver on circularity”.

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

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.

But delays to these could cause additional emissions of 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year up to 2030, according to analysis by ECOS and the European Environmental Bureau.

“Resource shortages clash with the high relevance that ecodesign and energy labelling policies are set to represent in the much-anticipated Sustainable Products Initiative, a flagship file currently under development by the Commission,” according to the NGOs.

The delays will also cost European consumers around €40 billion by 2030, estimate the NGOs, who are calling on the European Commission to allocate appropriate resources to the policies.

“Ecodesign has been proven to deliver on climate and circular economy objectives. However, this essential framework is bizarrely being neglected,” said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, senior policy officer for circular economy and product policy at the European Environmental Bureau.

“The result is more emissions and higher energy bills for citizens. This casts doubts on the Commission’s commitment to this policy area, including the forthcoming Sustainable Products Initiative,” he added.

The EU’s new ecodesign and sustainable product rules were announced in March last year as part of the European Commission’s circular economy action plan, which aims to decouple economic growth from natural resource use.

In response to EURACTIV’s questions about the report, a European Commission spokesperson said that energy efficiency is one of the key pillars for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and central to reaching climate neutrality by mid-century. Ecodesign and energy labelling are important elements to support this, they added.

“It is clear that setting rules at EU level requires adequate resources, both financial and human, and that the need to match ambitions and resources must be considered carefully in the context of the Sustainable Products Initiative and any extension of the scope of product specific regulations,” the spokesperson told EURACTIV.

“The report draws attention to a number of areas where even more could have been done at a faster pace. The Commission is aware of these and has already taken steps, where possible, to address the situation,” they continued.

But the number of reviews adopted is not the sole indicator of progress, the spokesperson continued, saying the last two years have seen new energy labels and ecodesign requirements, with the executive planning to adopt a new roadmap for these soon.

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.

Building a circular economy

So far, ecodesign has been focused on energy-related products. European recyclers are now looking at minimum requirements to be expanded to a wider range of products because over 80% of the environmental impact is decided at the design stage.

“If you want to move towards a more circular economy, the low hanging fruit, but also the most difficult one to grab is designing products to make them more durable, more repairable, more recyclable, and also making sure that they are more sustainable and thus use more recycled materials,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary-general of the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation.

“This is essential to boost circular value chains since, as acknowledged by the European Green Deal, only 12% of the raw materials the EU’s industry uses come from recycling,” he added.

Increased ecodesign is key for products, such as electronics, where glues used to hold together parts can make recycling more complex, and textiles, which have extremely low recycling rates.

“Up until now, there has been very little connection between products’ design and the end-of-life phase. It’s absolutely impossible to reach a circular economy, if such a connection is not made,” Katrakis told EURACTIV.

Schweitzer also supports ecodesign being rolled out to more products, saying it has been an extremely effective policy, which has already delivered 50% of the EU’s energy efficiency target and 20% of emissions cuts.

“If the Commission really intends to deliver on the objective to make sustainable products the norm, this is something quite serious actually, because this really means making all products sold on the European market sustainable,” he told EURACTIV.

“From our perspective, that means that the European market of products needs to have an environmental footprint which is within planetary boundaries,” he added.

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.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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