Europe can learn from Germany’s circular economy, experts say

timothy_takemoto.jpg [Timothy Takemoto/Flickr]

While Germany boasts the highest EU-wide recycling rate, 85% of waste in certain regions within the bloc ends up in landfills. Analysts are worried about the European Commission’s current reevaluation of waste targets. EURACTIV Germany reports.

130 planned EU laws initiated under the second Barroso Commission are currently under examination by the new team under Jean-Claude Juncker. The Commission plans on presenting the initiatives, which are  planned for 2015, next Wednesday (17 December).

Until then, the Brussels institution must decide which legislative proposals will make the cut and which will be thrown out.

Last week, eleven national environment ministers – including Germany’s Barbara Hendricks and France’s Ségolène Royal – wrote a letter to the Commission, calling on the institution to uphold planned EU legislation for higher air quality and better recycling.

Environment ministers were particularly concerned about the package of measures on the circular economy. The European Commission should “very closely examine” the possible benefits of the planned trash legislation, the ministers wrote.

In 2010, the EU generated 2.5 billion tonnes of waste. Only 36% of this amount was recycled.

In the Commission’s view, the transition to a circular economy will not happen on its own, said Richard Kühnel. He is a representative of the European Commission in Germany, who spoke at a EURACTIV workshop on the circular economy, and resource deficiency, on Thursday (4 December) in Berlin.

Many companies in Europe, simply lack the ability to do this, said Kühnel. On the other hand, the financial system often provides insufficient support for investors in resource management.

In addition, many consumers are even missing sensitisation to the issue, Kühnel pointed out.

“At a fundamental level, we all agree,” said Andreas Jaron, from the German Environment Ministry. “We want a more circular economy in Europe.”

But the Commission’s proposals do “not exactly” say anything in this regard, he said. “They are well-meaning, but unfortunately are badly executed,” said Jaron.

This could also be recognised in the tone of the Council’s orientation debate in October, Jaron said. “Everyone is in favour of getting better. But everyone is against the Commission’s proposals. There is almost nothing included that is useful as it stands now.”

But that does not mean nothing can be improved, the German Environment Ministry’s Jaron indicated. Along with ten other countries, Germany is advising the European Commission to hold on to the proposal in question.

“We want to support the Commission in making something good out of the proposal,” Jaron explained.

One of the most ambitious and likely most well-known proposals from the Commission Package says that Europe should recycle 70% of its municipal waste and 80% of packaging waste by 2030.

“It is particularly doubtful, whether member states – who can only recycle about half of their municipal waste – will be motivated to do better work under more intensive quotas,” argued Volker Pawlitzki, from Aurubis AG.

Because almost 20 states still send about 50% of their waste to the landfill, the proposed quota of 70% is completely unrealistic, said Jaron. In addition, it is important to understand that there are various ways to calculate the quota. Germany has chosen to compare the volume sent to recycling with the overall municipal waste level.

In Germany, such rates are currently around 60-65%. If this method of calculation is applied to other member states, the results are around 15-20%. But these states have chosen a different calculation method.

“They only look at the amount of classical recycling materials collected, like metal, plastic, glass, paper, compost,” Jaron explained. That is how many countries achieve a quota of around 50%.

If the Commission were to propose a harmonised quota now, one would be able to compare Estonia and Spain, or the UK with Greece. But nowhere in the proposal, does the Commission outline how to achieve this, Jaron stated.

Almost all of the workshop’s panelists agreed that Germany is further along on the issue of the circular economy and resource efficiency than many other European countries. “We have had a landfill dumping ban in place in Germany since 2005, “ said Bundestag MP Michael Thews from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

“The problem we have in the EU are the often very different approaches among the member states,” Thews pointed out. Here, Germany’s experiences and industry could prove to be helpful, he stated.

“We in Germany show that it is possible,” said Jaron. “Economy and ecology are closely connected here. In Germany we have very high recycling rates, citizens and industry that are sensitised, 200,000 people working in the circular economy and 15,000 facilities that deal with the waste economy.”

And what sets Germany apart from other countries? “The main factor, besides the highly-developed environmental consciousness: we have driven home the polluter pays principle in Germany,” said Jaron. “That means whoever creates waste also has to pay for it. It is not the state, who pays for waste disposal. It is the citizen, the economy and the industry.” In this way, higher standards can be financed, he explained.

Many in Germany are satisfied with the fact that the country is already a leader in Europe, said Benjamin Bongardt, director of resource policy at the headquarters of the German Association for Nature Conservation (NABU. But there are still many weaknesses, he indicated, pointing out that the recyclables law or commercial waste law contain rules that are not properly adhered to by “certain companies”.

In 2012, Germany amended the circular economy law, explained Bongardt. “We currently have ongoing infringement proceedings against Germany, because the waste hierarchy was not properly implemented under certain circumstances for certain niches.”

On the topic of capturing and collecting in Germany, discounters or retailers will still be able to put a lot of electrical waste in circulation that they do not have to take back in the end.

“It is not surprising that the collection levels are not high enough,” said Bongardt. “There are plenty of action areas where Germany too still has to develop, not just the other member states.”

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.

Subscribe to our newsletters