Sustainability expert: Circular economy package will survive Commission’s cuts

Benjamin Bongardt [NABU/Eric Neuling]

Benjamin Bongardt [NABU/Eric Neuling]

If the Juncker Commission wants to strengthen trust, maintain continuity and promote sustainability, it should not only uphold the previous Commission’s circular economy package, but further develop the waste policy measure, says Benjamin Bongardt, claiming public criticism from industry should not be taken seriously.

Dr. Benjamin Bongardt is an advisor for sustainability and environmental policy at the German Association for Nature Conservation (NABU). He spoke with EURACTIV Germany’s editor-in-chief Daniel Tost.

Over the summer of 2014, the European Commission published a package titled “A Zero Waste Programme for Europe”, toward strengthening the circular economy, using resources more efficiently and simplifying waste legislation. Now, the Commission’s newly-appointed teams are discussing the withdrawal of many legislative proposals – including the recycling economy package. Is there a risk that environmental policy could become marginalised?

For us, it is unacceptable that the European Commission would even consider withdrawing this package. It is based on a well-founded scientific assessment that was conducted by the previous Commission. It is completely inconceivable, that the reasoning could have changed. The scientific assessment showed that this package is both necessary and useful.

Dropping the package would be comparable to an affront and weakening trust in EU institutions. Political discontinuity would mean wasting tax monies. After all, it is not easy to agree on a package like this.

But it seems the issues of sustainable development, biodiversity and climate protection will only play a secondary role under the new Commission’s politics. Do you think the package on the circular economy will be completely dropped or will it be modified?

It was already telling, that when Juncker assembled his new Commission team, there was unanimous agreement among the Parliament’s ranks, but also in the member-states, that we need a Commission aimed at sustainability and climate protection – not just at jobs and growth. It is very important that we uphold continuity.

We anticipate that the circular economy package, and also particularly the Air Quality Package, will keep their current form. The member-states, civil society institutions and especially the European Parliament up to its highest echelons have insisted on this. If there is a desire to pursue sustainability, these packages and many more are needed. After all, the packages have weaknesses, where sustainable development will not receive adequate support.

Can you name a few of these weaknesses, specifically?

A positive aspect of the circular economy package is that it harmonises recycling quotas across the EU and that it solidifies the landfill ban, as is already the case in Germany. In this way we are moving a bit further in the direction of extended producer responsibility. This does not change the fact that member-states should still align with each other and that compliance with European Environment Law should go further. Playing these two arguments off against each other is simply dishonest.

There is certainly still room for improvement in terms of resource conservation. There is still much to discuss in the resource efficiency debate. For example, we need an indicator for raw materials consumption, that would indicate absolute raw materials consumption within the EU. This amount should then be reduced per person, per year. The circular economy package does not provide anything in that area.

According to the German Länder, extensive portions of the directive and certain ideas regarding feasibility, meaningfulness and appropriateness need to be re-assessed. Do you think this criticism is reasonable?

Criticism from individual German Länder is very thorough compared to the rest of Europe. It may have become misleading: thorough and detailed German criticism is being interpreted as opposing the circular economy package as such. This cannot be the goal. It was always emphasised, that there is full support for the targets and direction of the package, just not for how it is being executed.

The problem is that criticism has been directed at all the points which are also targeted by opponents of the circular economy package and supporters of landfills and waste incineration. That is disastrous. In this case you end up saying the opposite of good is a good intention. This path leads to a position that is inexcusable for us in environmental associations.

After all, it is still only a proposal. There is still a long way to go before getting into the details over how to implement the whole thing.  One cannot be so politically blind, not to recognise the signs of the times and unambiguously support the package.

Industry associations in Germany want to put a stop to the European Commission’s plans for new and stricter regulation in EU waste policy. They indicated that Germany implemented the EU waste directives in an “exemplary and practical” manner, whereas many other member-states still have much catching-up to do regarding implementation and enforcement of the law. Should this be prioritised before further and stricter rules are introduced?

Statements heard publicly from the industry should not really be taken seriously, to be honest. If you look at a press release from Plastics Europe in Brussels in July, when the Commission’s proposal was published, the bulk of the initiatives were welcomed. If you then take a look at a press release from the Association of Chemical Industries in Germany regarding the Council of Environment Ministers in October, the wording is completely the opposite. Apparently the industry does not even know what exactly it wants or there are differing influences – within the plastics industry itself.

Saying that in Germany we are already leaders and the other member-states must first figure out how to reach our status, is not a valid argument. It is just not an approach. This has been attempted in the EU’s waste policy, some of the oldest environmental legislation, for many decades. After enlargement it has become even more difficult to achieve harmonisation. But that does not mean one path should be determined, defining where to go, for front runners and for the entire EU. Nothing is more fatal than policy without a mission, something the economy cannot rely on. It is doing itself a disservice, by lobbying to put the brakes on a short-term political “success”.

That is not the purpose at all. The purpose should be a “level playing field” for industry in all of Europe. That includes compliance with existing law, as well as its further development.

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