EU tables ‘circular economy’ package with zero-landfill goal

An e-Waste collection centre in South America [Photo: Curtis Palmer, Flickr]

An e-Waste collection centre in South America. [Curtis Palmer/Flickr]

The European Commission issued proposals yesterday (2 July) to increase recycling and phase out landfilling, with a series of legally-binding measures aimed at nudging the EU towards a lean “circular economy”.

The circular economy is defined as an economic model that produces virtually no waste, with raw materials being re-used and recycled continually within a closed loop.

The package, adopted yesterday by the Commission, contains a wide-ranging list of legally binding targets:

  • a 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030;
  • an 80% recycling target for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030;
  • and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.

The document also lists a series of “aspirational” goals, which are not legally enforceable:

  • a phase out of landfilling of all recoverable waste by 2030;
  • a 30% reduction of waste by 2025;
  • and a 30% fall in marine litter by 2020.

In the new measures, the Commission has proposed to use resource productivity – or gross domestic product (GDP) relative to raw material consumption – as its official indicator of resource efficiency.

Tense debate ahead

The package is now being forwarded to the European Parliament and EU member states for adoption. The debate promises to be tense, with BusinessEurope, the EU employers’ organisation representing the continent’s companies, rejecting the idea of targets. “The use of resources should not be penalised,” a spokesperson said, rejecting the proposed resource productivity indicator. Countries like the UK have also rejected the notion that Europe should set targets for its member states.

The Commission, however, has lined up its own arguments. Achieving those targets, the Commission says, would create 580,000 new jobs in environmentally friendly businesses across the European Union while reducing demand for costly and scarce resources. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, 96% of respondents said that it was important for them that Europe uses its resources more efficiently.

Janez Poto?nik, the European commissioner for the environment, said that the package “marked recognition that the growth path that we are pursuing is not the right one for Europe in the 21st century”. The commissioner has been outspoken about the EU’s “throw-way society”, in which products are continually and rapidly discarded without regard for the ecological cost of producing them.

“We are living with linear economic systems inherited from the 19th Century in the 21st Century world of emerging economies, millions of new middle class consumers, and inter-connected markets. If we want to compete we have to get the most out of our resources, and that means recycling them back into productive use, not burying them in landfills as waste,” Poto?nik said.

‘New environmentally-friendly jobs’

Many businesses around Europe have sought to improve their environmental footprint, with the EU expected to improve its resource productivity by 15% between 2014 and 2030 under current legislation.

However, Poto?nik said that the Commission needed to take action as the EU was still “locked into the model of a linear economy”, in which new materials are constantly sourced and products discarded, perhaps to landfill, after being used once.

The package aims to encourage businesses to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices, such as improving the longevity and reparability of their products, arguing that this can benefit them in the long-run.

The Commission says that by implementing such measures EU companies could save some €600 billion, or 8% of annual turnover.

“The shift towards a green economy is a tremendous opportunity for generating new, environmentally friendly jobs, while securing the sustainable well-being of future generations and contributing to recovery from the economic crisis,” said László Andor, the commissioner for employment and social affairs.

Andor said that the “economic transformation” defined in the document could also lead to jobs being replaced or redefined, with employment opportunities particularly present in the water, waste, energy efficiency and energy sectors, such as in renewables.

The EU is seeking to promote skills in these areas, and re-skilling, and has earmarked funding for more environmentally friendly employment.

The document also proposes measures to improve the resource efficiency of the construction and demolition sectors and to promote “industrial symbiosis”, the sharing of by-products between industries.

The Commission is due to release proposals to tackle the issue of food waste within the next few weeks.

European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "Research and innovation are the keys to success for the Circular Economy, which is why we are proposing a joined-up approach today. Alongside a supportive regulatory framework, our new Horizon 2020 programme will contribute the know-how necessary to shape a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy in the EU."

Markus Beyrer, the director general of BusinessEurope, the EU-wide employers group, said: "BusinessEurope fully supports the vision to make the EU a more resource efficient and competitive workplace. The business community has made significant progress so far and will continue to do so."

"However, the target-based approach - 30% resource productivity target by 2030 - proposed today by the European Commission is far too simplistic to capture the complexity of resources use, production and consumption. The EU should abstain from any target rather than having an inappropriate one," Beyrer said. "The proposed Resource Efficiency target, based on the GDP relative to Raw Material Consumption, wrongly focuses on quantity only rather than looking at efficiency of the resources use. The use of resources should not be penalised, while the efficient use should be our objective."

“Circular thinking is all about enhancing productivity whilst making efficient use of available resources. Saving energy, nutrients and water and ensuring sustainable biomass production brings about significant economic and environmental benefits and we have made huge efforts in this. Avoiding the wastage of resources is a priority for farmers, forest holders and their cooperatives, and it is clear that by optimising the use and reuse of resources, new business opportunities and additional jobs can be created”, said Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of Copa-Cogeca, the European farmers and agri-cooperatives.

Ariadna Rodrigo, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “The proposals do not give a full picture of the resources Europe consumes. The plans fail to address resources, like land and water, contained in the products we consume. If Europe is going to take resource overconsumption seriously then it needs to start measuring all the land, carbon, water and material it’s responsible for consuming – and making plans to reduce these in absolute terms.”

Piotr Barczak, the European Environmental Bureau’s policy officer on waste, said: “The Commission’s waste policy reforms set bold targets for recycling which are good for Europe. Importantly, it will harmonise the way recycling rates are now calculated across Europe.  Waste policy is a textbook example of an area where the EU needs to act to address today’s big challenges.”

Christian Verschueren, director-general of EuroCommerce said: “In fact, the retail and wholesale sector is already  adhering and implementing  many of the principles of a true circular economy. For example, some leading companies are encouraging their customers to bring back old items such as textiles or electrical and electronic equipment so that they can be recycled. We are nevertheless keen to discuss new ideas and initiatives.”

Hungarian Green MEP Benedek Jávor, said: "While the ostensible goal of the Commission to move towards zero waste is very welcome, it has gotten the priorities wrong with its proposals. The top priority should be a greater focus on prevention of waste, with ambitious reduction targets. Unfortunately, what the Commission is proposing de facto gives priority to recycling, rather than waste prevention. However, more recycling alone does not mean that Europe's overconsumption of resources is actually reduced. More recycling is welcome, but without  proposing effective  waste reduction targets, beyond food waste and marine litter, the Commission creates a false sense of 'problem solved'."

Danish Green MEP Margrete Auken said:The proposal to prohibit recyclable waste from being sent to landfills from 2025  is an important step forward but major uncertainty remains. Any landfill ban needs to be accompanied by legal provisions to also prevent the incineration of recyclable waste at the same time if we are to avoid setting fire to a coherent approach on recycling.

"The proposal for a resource efficiency target is welcome. It represents a concrete measure to deliver the acknowledgement that reducing resource use offers an enormous potential to create new jobs, decrease Europe's dependency on imported resources and help build crisis-resilient economies. However, a non-binding target based on resource productivity is too weak and fails to address the need to reduce overall resource consumption in Europe in absolute terms.

“The new recycling targets are based on the best performing EU member states although recycling rates from these states are not comparable. Current calculation methods for recycling vary between countries,” said Jori Ringman, the product and environment director of the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI), a recycling group.

“With 42% of beverage cartons recycled in the EU in 2013, we see a continued upward trend in beverage carton recycling in Europe, but there are still wide differences as regards recycling achievements across EU Member States” says Katarina Molin, director general of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE). “While some Member States have reached impressive recycling figures above 60%, several Member States still lag behind in the development of collection infrastructure and separate collection of consumer packaging, which also affects the recycling rate of beverage cartons”.

“It is important to note that this proposal relates not only to packaging but also to packaged goods,” said Martin Reynolds, chairman of the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment (Europen). “Europen is pleased that the proposal recognises the importance of safeguarding the free movement of packaged goods in the internal market, which is a cornerstone of the European Union. Confidence in the internal market for packaged goods is fundamental for investment, innovation and economic growth in Europe. Therefore, we welcome the Commission’s intention to remain vigilant about national measures that may distort the internal market.”

Gerd Götz, the director general of the European Aluminium Association said: "EAA welcomes the European Commission’s package and supports many of its flagship proposals, including the new requirements on waste exports to  combat illegal shipments of waste, the gradual phasing out of landfilling of recyclable waste, the reference to recyclability and durability in eco-design requirements, and the call for a better reporting of data. These are all essential conditions to achieve more ambitious recycling targets and to ensure a level playing field among products and materials."

A spokesperson for the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants said: "Waste to energy is complementary to quality recycling, helping to achieve a clean circular economy. If waste is too polluted for quality recycling, it should be used to generate local, affordable and secure energy in waste to energy plants."

Resource-efficiency is one of the seven flagship initiatives in the 'Europe 2020' strategy for sustainable growth and jobs, endorsed by EU heads of states in 2010.

The concept means decoupling economic growth from natural resource use – including raw materials, commodities, water, air or ecosystems.

The European Commission unveiled its Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe in September 2011, recommending the introduction of resource-efficiency indicators and targets across the 27-nation bloc.

The main ideas in the roadmap were developed further in the EU's seventh Environmental Action Programme, which aims to to turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green and competitive low-carbon economy, the Commission says.

  • The legislative proposals contained in the package are now forwarded to the European Parliament and Council for adoption.

Subscribe to our newsletters