EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission was accused last night of stalling national waste and recycling policies across the EU, after it emerged that only two countries have dedicated circular economy strategies.
Resource efficiency has increased across the EU, with use dropping by 12% from 2000 to 2014, but only Germany, the Netherlands and the Belgian region of Flanders has a dedicated circular economy plan, according to European Environment Agency research, published yesterday (9 June).
Last year the Commission put forward its circular economy package of waste, recycling and landfill laws – its response to a future of booming population and finite resources.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the executive’s ‘better regulation’ chief, had withdrawn a version drawn up by the previous Barroso administration in 2014, saying it was not “ambitious” enough.
That delay slowed the adoption of national circular economy strategies, as governments waited to see what changes the executive would make to the ditched package, green politicians and campaigners said.
Reinhard Bütikofer is co-chair of the European Green Party. “The contradictory approach by the Juncker Commission, in particular by Vice-President Frans Timmermans, of delaying action and at the same time professing increased ambition has resulted in giving excuses and even encouragement to laggards while sending confusing messages to member countries that wanted to move forward,” the German MEP said.
“This is further evidence that the scrapping of the first proposal has now meant a wasted eighteen months and counting for national government action – which is where policy becomes reality and resources can actually be saved,” said Meadhbh Bolger, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
The Circular Economy Package is now being scrutinised by both the European Parliament and EU environment ministers – which would have happened a year earlier if the old package had not been withdrawn. Both sides must agree an identical text before it can become law.
The EEA told euractiv.com that it did not have sufficient information to speculate why there were only three strategies at this time.
It pointed out that the Flemish and German strategies predated both Commission packages.
Several countries, such as the UK, Ireland, Portugal, France, Denmark, Czech Republic had expressed support for the circular economy, but had not yet followed it up with a strategy, the EEA said.
Waste and eco-design
But the majority of reported circular economy policy initiatives focused on waste management, with only a few examples going beyond increasing recycling rates and a higher use of secondary raw materials.
The European Commission’s new Circular Economy Package goes further by, for example, including design rules to make products easier to recycle.
But the new package has lower 2030 targets for recycling municipal and packaging waste. For municipal waste, the new target is 65%, rather than 70%, and for packaging it is 75% rather than 80%. Those targets are expected to be restored by MEPs.
“As the Commission’s proposals turned out to be ambitious more in rhetoric than in reality it will now be more difficult to muster enough courage from enough countries to move the Circular Economy agenda forward,” said Bütikofer.
He added, “That is all the more deplorable since there is hardly a doubt that recycling and efficiency technologies will have to be at the centre of Europe´s industrial competitiveness strategy.”
“The Commission’s new more ambitious package gives a strong signal to those ready to invest in the circular economy. The transition is already taking place. Stakeholders, including member states, industry, civil society and SMEs, are on board to take this forward,” a Commission spokesman said.
Resource efficiency is making better use of materials such as metals, fuels and minerals and is an important part of the circular economy, where resources are reused and recycled as often as possible.
Resource use per EU citizen fell from 15.5 to 13.1 tonnes, the EEA report said.
But the EEA found that just three countries, Austria, Finland and Germany had plans to boost resource efficiency in general. Scotland and Flanders also had resource efficiency strategies.
The EEA said that the improved resource efficiency was motivated by desire to increase economic competitiveness, boost material and energy security by reducing dependence on imports, and protect the environment.
Stronger policies on energy, resources, waste management and the circular economy were needed to ensure there was no return to a pattern of increased economic growth was coupled with increased resource uses, the EEA said.
The report also found;
- Most improvements in resource productivity happened between 2007 and 2014. The gains were mostly due to the sharp decline in construction activity as a result of the 2007-8 financial crisis;
- A majority of countries (26) identified certain waste streams and secondary materials as the most common group of priority materials. Key waste streams are plastic and packaging (17 countries), construction and demolition waste (16 countries), and food waste (15 countries);
- Energy sources, like fossil fuels and including renewables, were mentioned by 18 countries as priority resources;
- Manufacturing was singled out most frequently as the key economic sector for improving material resource efficiency, followed by agriculture and forestry, construction, and waste management.