This article is part of our special report The Circular Economy.
SPECIAL REPORT / Europe could be recycling 70% of its municipal waste by 2030, if a binding proposal that would phase out the environmentally harmful practice of landfill disposal is approved by the European Commission this month, EURACTIV has learned.
The bloc is already committed to recycling half of its waste and “virtually eliminating” landfill by 2020, but while Germany’s recycling and composting rate stands at 65%, Romania’s is just 1%. In general, the EU’s north and west recycles more than its south and east.
A senior EU official told EURACTIV that the proposed new regulation to be signalled in a circular economy on 1 July, should bring all EU states up to the level of today’s best-performers.
“If you look at Austria now, there’s 70% recycling and virtually zero landfill and we want to drive towards that in 2030 for all member states,” he said. “The problem is that some states are already there while with others, you can reverse the figure and say at least 70% landfill and virtually no recycling.”
“We need to use the experience of the best performers, look at how quickly they were able to travel towards that target and set an objective that’s realistic,” he added.
Landfill rates would be reduced to less than 5% under the proposal – covering ‘the residues of the waste residues’ that cannot otherwise be disposed of – with incineration taking care of the rest, despite environmental concerns about the practice.
It is unclear whether states such as Germany would still be able to omit counting the landfilling of incinerated ashes and waste residues under the proposed new regime.
As EURACTIV revealed in March, the new package will also involve doubling a business as usual trajectory, under which raw material efficiency would rise to 15% by the end of the next decade.
This new legally-binding 30% target would be measured by counting raw material consumption as a percentage of GDP, the source said. But “whether we can agree that within the Commission is another issue,” he cautioned, “because it is so complex and involves so many different areas of policy.”
The circular economy proposal is intended to prolong the use of products at the end of their natural lifecycle and cuts across Commission boundaries, affecting directorates such as energy, research, agriculture and competition.
EURACTIV understands that it will be jointly launched by the environment commissioner, Janez Poto?nik, and the research innovation and science commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.
There will be no goals for hazardous waste or phosphorous use in the package and targets for marine litter and food waste will be non-binding – although recommendations for the latter will be made in a separate proposal made on the same day as the circular economy one.
But the idea is a challenge to the ‘throwaway society’ model of over-consumption that sustains some industrial practices, and opposition is likely from within and without Brussels.
“There is quite a degree of scepticism about targets and ‘targetitis’,” the official conceded. “People think there are too many targets and that they won’t be coherent with other targets. I can foresee that we will have discussions in terms of whether we need a target, and what it will be.”
The UK is one member state which has already set out its stall against new legislation on waste disposal, citing ‘insufficient evidence’ to support 2030 goals, and calling instead for “reducing regulatory burdens for business”.
A UK government response to the Commission review said, “We are aware that in poor economic times, a number of member states are not currently on course to meet the 2020 targets. The European Commission should find ways to help member states implement existing targets before setting new targets.”
Officials though are quick to point out that the proposed circular economy package is coherent with EU legislation on 2020 policy and targets, Ecodesign legislation, reindustrialisation targets, research objectives and climate and energy goals.
The focus of any disagreement would be on “details” rather than substance, they argue.
Winners and losers
“Everybody is convinced by the theory and idea [of resource efficiency] and fact that it is inevitable but when it comes down the specifics you get winners and losers,” the official said. “You will need to move to new business models, new technologies and things like sharing and leasing, which really contradict the idea of just selling stuff on markets. Many countries will lose out if they don’t adapt.”
They would not necessarily be losers though, he added, as by investing early they would avoid hitting the walls of changing consumer behaviour, supply shocks and commodity price booms.
“If you take the primary raw extractive industries as an example, they’re worried that they will lose out if they sell less stuff or extract fewer raw materials,” the official continued.
“We are telling them that their products are so much in demand because of middle class consumption – and there will be three billion extra middle class consumers by 2030,” he said. “The demand for raw materials is going to be so high – and we in Europe will be in such competition for those resources – that we have to do something about the efficiency of our resource use.”
In 2008, the environmental group WWF estimated that the annual ecological overshoot could only be accommodated by the equivalent of 1.5 planets.
The question of who funds the correction may now take centre stage in the waste recycling debate.