Waste reform: From environmental disaster to economic opportunity

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The EU should assess what 'recycling' actually means before setting landfill and recycling targets. [Shutterstock]

MEPs have the chance to unlock over 800,000 jobs by improving waste management and waste prevention across the EU. If they support progressive waste reform, the benefits will be huge for citizens, businesses and governments, writes Piotr Barczak.

Piotr Barczak is waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau.

On 24 January, the European Parliament’s environment committee will vote on the pending legislative proposals on the 2015 Waste Package put forward by the European Commission.

The Waste Package is the main set of legislation accompanying the Circular Economy strategy, which aims to support the transition towards a more sustainable and stronger economy by expanding recycling, reuse and repair.

However, the package has been widely criticised by campaigners and progressive businesses. Despite the announcement by European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans that the 2015 Circular Economy Package would be more ambitious than the 2014 proposal, the targets for recycling and reducing landfill waste are weaker. The plan also fails to adequately address waste prevention by repair and reuse, and lacks a legal framework that incentivises prevention.

MEP Simona Bonafè, Rapporteur for the Waste Directive from the Socialists & Democrats group, put forward a new set of proposals in June last year outlining the importance of having stronger targets. In her report, which will be put to a vote on 24 January, she proposes to increase recycling targets for municipal solid waste from the current 65% proposed by the Commission to 70% by 2030. The suggested amendments also include the implementation of an 80% target for the recycling of packaging waste.

An ambitious Waste Package would provide a unique opportunity for EU decision-makers to put Europe back on track towards economic recovery. The European Commission’s own impact assessment estimated the targets put forward by Bonafè would unlock 580,000 jobs by 2030, as well as €72 billion a year in savings for businesses benefiting from greater resource security. But figures for job creation could go up to 867,000 if, on top of the 70% recycling target, the executive adopted better policies for reuse – especially with regards to furniture and textiles.

In addition, a more effective combination of waste management and prevention policies would bring member states closer to achieving their climate change targets by cutting down between 146 and 244 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

These proposals are badly needed. Today we are far from reaping the full benefits of a circular economy. In Europe, we still burn or bury 50% of the waste we produce, destroying valuable resources that are often imported from overseas at a high price. This outdated model of a linear economy has made member states heavily dependent on imports at the expense of competitiveness for European industries.

It is for this reason that much more is expected from the MEPs gathering in Brussels on 24 January. Legally binding targets for waste prevention are needed just as much as higher recycling targets for waste management. Member states are currently exempt from any legal obligation on food waste and marine litter, despite their commitment to introducing reduction targets under the Sustainable Development Goals. Such political targets need to be legally anchored to the Waste Package in order to make governments accountable and avoid empty promises.

Furthermore, MEPs should reconsider the time derogations for recycling targets that are granted to certain underperforming member states. This is primarily in the interests of such countries, which would risk being left even further behind. Member states should instead be incentivised to generate less waste by receiving more adequate recycling targets based on their level of waste generation. This way, prevention would be rewarded, rather than wastefulness.

As waste generation becomes increasingly costly from both an economic and environmental perspective, MEPs are called to support a swift and ambitious transition to the circular economy. The benefits are well known – it’s now down to EU decision-makers to put in place the measures necessary to close the loop.

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