Increased recycling has come at the expense of greener activities like reuse. The European Union now needs to adopt a multidimensional approach to tackle Europe’s waste problem and move towards circularity, writes Joan Marc Simon.
Joan Marc Simon is the executive director of the NGO, Zero Waste Europe.
“When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger.” This famous quote from Confucius could be applied to the last 40 years of waste legislation in the EU – and it is interesting to take a closer look at it as the activities of this year’s EU Green Week unfold under the motto ‘Zero Pollution for healthier people and planet’.
Waste management in the 80s and 90s was mainly a public health issue, and the purpose of legislation was to reduce the impact of waste disposal operations on the communities nearby. Those were the days of the EU landfill directive and the push for incineration. In the 2000s, the idea of recycling gained traction and, in 2008, the EU approved recycling targets of 50% for 2020 whilst continuing to push for incineration.
In 2014, we realised that accelerating the pace in a linear economy was a one-way street; this epiphany was branded the Circular Economy. This stopped the incineration fever and the focus was put on recycling. Then came the time of directives on plastic bags and single-use plastics, which pinpointed that waste pollution was not a waste management issue after all.
Looking back, in the last 30 years, Europe has reduced landfilling by around 30% and doubled recycling and incineration figures. At the same time, reuse/refill has been decimated and we are generating 20% more waste per capita. In other words, the bottom of the waste hierarchy has been getting fatter at the expense of the upper side. This confirms that, when the wise man pointed at the moon, all we could see was the waste accumulating on the finger. But it was just a pointer, a symptom. The good news is that we are finally collectively understanding that the solution lies elsewhere.
The motto “The best waste is that which is not generated” needs to be translated into the economic, legal and social drivers necessary to lead the transition. It is common sense that if things can be repaired, washed, refurbished and reused they will last longer.
Therefore, the waste generated and the environmental impact will go down. However, we need to replace half a century of legislation and economic incentives favouring disposability with a new paradigm in resource management. This means going well beyond the “closing the loop” approach, based on the assumption that the problem with waste is the underperformance of recycling.
Disposability was engineered as a way to increase throughput in times of economic recession: the quicker something becomes waste, the faster we can sell another product. More sales mean more economic growth, more jobs, more salaries which can be spent on buying new things … and the wheel keeps on turning as long as environmental and health externalities remain hidden.
Waste seemed like a fair price to pay in exchange for the other benefits that a linear economy was bringing. Today, this model is obsolete: Europe is mainly a consumer of disposable items that are produced on the other side of the world; the quantity and quality of our employment is decreasing; fertility rates have halved in the last 40 years because of our exposure to chemicals; and we generate more waste than ever.
Because of the historical context that we find ourselves in, it is clear that waste is only a variable of a complex equation. The new paradigm requires that we leave behind disposability – not only because it is a waste of resources and an ethical crime, but also because it drains our economies and pollutes our lives. We need a socio-economic system that is good and healthy for the people, rebuilds natural capital, and generates local economic activity rooted in the community.
The EU is finally on the right track when addressing the complexity of the challenge. It only makes sense that the existing waste legislation is linked with the newly presented Chemical Strategy, the Sustainable Product Initiative, and the European Green Deal as a whole, since a true circular economy should not only be green and regenerative, it should also be clean and socially responsible.
This is why a multidisciplinary approach is key for good policymaking. For instance, when developing policies about packaging, we should not only consider the best way to protect the product and reduce the environmental footprint, but also make sure the packaging is safer from a food contact material perspective, and supports local jobs and local economy through shorter supply chains whilst keeping its value after several uses.
The resilience shown by natural ecosystems is partly due to its multidimensionality. In contrast, we produce legislation based on one or two variables and this explains the undesirable externalities of the linear economy. Holistic policy-making is one of the biggest challenges of the circular economy.
Transitioning from a linear, socially unfair, and polluting economy to a circular, toxic-free, and fair society is not something that can be done overnight. However, as of today, most of us have our homes filled with toxic chemicals present in packaging, furniture, or floorings. We don’t have access to locally produced seasonal food or are able to make responsible choices when buying clothes, IT equipment, or toys. When shopping, it is impossible to know whether a product is safe, repairable, recyclable, or durable.
People are ready to move away from disposability into a more resilient and fulfilling way of living – one that is based on wellbeing instead of throughput. The next three years of EU policy-making are key to change product, chemical, and food policies, and lay the foundations of a healthier and fairer society.