Zero waste programmes have been hailed as a global panacea for the environment. Giles Crosse examines the radical EU steps to deliver a ‘circular’ economy.
The European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik believes that the EC’s Zero Waste proposals will create more than half a million jobs and revolutionize European business.
The proposals are more exciting and far-reaching than they sound. The new regulations – the EU Circular Economy Package: ‘Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe’ – are based on the idea that forcing businesses to comply will eliminate landfill waste. Of course, it seems a Utopian vision, but it is undoubtedly true that most waste can be converted into useful products, such as energy.
Potočnik said: “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.”
The EC says circular economies should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into a “closed loop”. Potočnik is evangelical in his belief that this type of economy represents the future for European business. But the EC needs to lead the way through regulation.
“Moving to a circular economy is not only possible, it is profitable, but that does not mean it will happen without the right policies,” he said. “The 2030 targets that we propose are about taking action today to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and exploiting the business and job opportunities it offers.”
What’s in the EU package?
At its core, the EU proposal is a push for higher recycling targets. Firms refusing to comply will face punitive taxes. Products that cannot be recycled, or do not use sustainable materials, will become much more expensive.
Some regions in the EU Member States are already achieving 70% recycling rates and virtually zero waste to landfill. The objective is to get all EU countries up to the level of the best performers by 2030.
Not all countries in Europe are at the same stage of development. Most EU members have set goals for minimizing waste, but many countries do not have the recycling infrastructure to deal with the many goods that will no longer be accepted at landfill sites. It is doubtful if Greece and Spain even possess the capacity for change. Mired in economic turmoil, they are already struggling to meet existing eco laws.
In July, the Commission took Spain to court for falling foul of the Landfill Directive. It states that operations at landfill sites in operation in 2001 should have ceased by 16 July 2009 unless they complied with EU safety standards. The EC says Spain has 28 non-compliant landfill sites still open almost five years after the final deadline for closure. In addition, three more need to be brought up to the required standards.
The people care
The public are overwhelmingly in favour of zero waste policies. Some 95% of EU citizens polled said that protecting the environment is important to them personally. Janez Potočnik said: “People are particularly concerned about air and water pollution, chemicals and waste, and they feel that more must be done by everyone to protect the environment.”
This overarching public sentiment may well lie at the heart of the Commission’s gutsy proposals which are supported by 85% of Europeans polled. A large majority of people believe companies and governments are not doing enough. Sorting waste for recycling was their highest priority task.
New world of waste
There are other positives hidden in the proposals. Turning Europe into a more circular economy will mean boosting recycling and preventing the loss of valuable materials. The commission claims this will spark economic growth. It has big ambitions to reshape Europe’s industrial heartlands through eco-design and industrial symbiosis. It claims the new waste targets will create 580,000 new jobs.
Key measures in the proposals
1) Increase recycling/reuse of municipal waste to 70% in 2030;
2) Increase packaging waste recycling/reuse to 80% in 2030 with material-specific targets set to gradually increase between 2020 and 2030 (to reach 90% for paper by 2025 and 60% for plastics, 80% for wood, 90% of ferrous metal, aluminium and glass by the end of 2030);
3) Phase out landfilling by 2025 for recyclable (including plastics, paper, metals, glass and bio-waste) waste in non-hazardous waste landfills – corresponding to a maximum landfilling rate of 25%;
4) Reduce food waste generation by 30% by 2025;
5) Introduce an early warning system to anticipate and avoid possible compliance difficulties;
6) Ensure full traceability of hazardous waste;
7) Increase the cost-effectiveness of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes by defining minimum conditions;
8) Simplify the reporting obligations and lighten obligations affecting SMEs;
9) Harmonise and streamline the calculation of the targets and improve the reliability of key statistics;
10) Improve the overall coherence by aligning definitions and removing obsolete legal requirements.