Circular economy: The EU’s ambitious new goals for management of products and waste | In Principle

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Circular economy: The EU’s ambitious new goals for management of products and waste

The circular economy is a model in which products, materials and resources are kept in circulation for as long as possible, and generation of waste is kept to a minimum. Implementation of this model would respond to the challenges of climate change and the need to support sustainable growth.

The closed loop is supposed to save energy, reduce CO2 emissions, prevent wasting and shortages of resources, and encourage innovative solutions for more efficient methods of production and consumption. Products should be designed to be more durable, easier to repair and disassemble, and more suitable for regeneration and recycling. This economic model could also create jobs, particular in services such as equipment repairs and waste management.

European Commission plan

These priorities are the goal of the EU’s action plan for the circular economy published in the Commission Communication “Closing the loop: An EU action plan for the Circular Economy” (COM(2015) 614 final), published in December 2015. The plan also contains numerous legislative proposals affecting various aspects of the economy, from changes in waste law to inclusion of new guidelines in reference documents for best available technologies and measures involving green procurement. A characteristic element of the proposed solutions is concrete industry initiatives. Here the Commission identified priorities in effective recycling of plastics, recovery of critical raw materials from used equipment, and effective management of waste from construction and demolition, as well as biomass and bio products.

Because choices made by buyers of products affect the economic model, consumers should be encouraged to make choices supporting the circular economy. The Commission intends to take measures for better labelling, including references to energy efficiency. It will also cooperate with the member states to help reduce the prices of environment-friendly products, e.g. through tax incentives. New rules for manufacturers’ liability for defects would also encourage durability and ensure the possibility of repairing products.

Goal: preventing generation of waste

Under the current Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC), an important role is played by the waste management hierarchy, in which the first priority is to prevent generation of waste and prepare the waste that is generated for reuse. Only after that, at the next level, should recycling be conducted, and other methods of waste recovery, and finally neutralisation of wastes, as the least preferred method of waste management.

But the directive lacks concrete regulations to further these goals. Thus the notions of preventing generation of waste and preparing waste for reuse remain mere political declarations or fuzzy ideals.

Now this is supposed to change. Under the proposed amendment to the Waste Framework Directive, the member states would be required to introduce specific solutions and measures that would encourage the use of products that are resource-efficient, durable, and capable of being repaired.

Ambitious recycling targets

The proposal also calls for introduction of further stages of targets for realisation of the circular economy priorities, which the member states are supposed to ensure within the relevant timeframes. Thus the quantity of communal waste prepared for reuse and undergoing recycling should increase to at least 60% (by weight) by 2025 and 65% by 2030. During the same period, landfilling should be cut to 10% of waste.

Currently about 40% of waste generated in EU households is recycled, but this is the average; there are regions where the figure is only 5% and other where it is as high as 80%.

Innovations should go to waste

According to Eurostat, in 2012 EU households generated over 213 million tonnes of waste (about 10% of the total waste produced in the EU). These wastes (including wastewater) represent resources. The Commission plans to develop standards for levels of contamination and fitness for recycling, including standards for organic waste, to enable reuse of such wastes. Using organic waste in agriculture would reduce the need to use mineral fertilisers, which must be produced using imported phosphorites. In this context, the Fertilisers Regulation (2003/2003) is supposed to be amended.

Limiting the use of fertilisers would also encourage reuse of waste water in agriculture because of the organic waste contained in the water. The Commission proposes legislative measures to encourage reuse of decontaminated wastewater. Electronic exchange of data supporting the flow of waste within the EU should also be developed.

Changing the economic paradigm requires innovation. Support for innovations around the circular economy is provided for in the Horizon 2020 programme, cohesion funds, the European Fund for Strategic Investments, and financial instruments of the European Investment Bank.

Scientists say we now live in the Anthropocene epoch. The influence of mankind on natural processes is visible on a planetary scale. That’s why good legal solutions are indispensable. It remains to be seen whether the EU’s action plan has any chance of truly limiting the quantities of waste and forcing fundamental changes in the approach to production and consumption in EU member states.

Agnieszka Kraińska, EU Law Practice, Wardyński & Partners

Dominik Wałkowski, Environmental Law Practice, Wardyński & Partners