The circular economy, including new waste and recycling laws, will represent “half” of the EU’s effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and will be erected as “the number one priority” of the upcoming European Green Deal, officials have said.
The EU’s 2015 circular economy action plan – which included a ban on single-use plastics and new recycling targets – has “paved the way for something new, something bigger,” according to a senior official overseeing the policy area at the European Commission.
The circular economy is “the number one priority” for the European Green Deal of incoming EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said Kęstutis Sadauskas, who is the director for circular economy and green growth at the Commission’s environment directorate.
Unveiled in December 2015, the first circular economy action plan became one of the hallmarks of the outgoing EU executive. Highlights included a ban on single-use plastic products like cutlery and food containers. And at least 70% of packaging will have to be recycled by 2030 – including 55% of plastics – under new rules brokered last year.
But that was “only the beginning of the journey,” Sadauskas said at a recent EURACTIV event. Indeed, the European Commission is now preparing a second circular economy action plan that “will come out rather soon after the new Commission takes office,” he said.
The new action plan is in fact already written and ready to be pulled out of the drawer. All that’s missing is a few minor details and, most importantly, the finishing touches of the political message, EURACTIV understands.
“Half” of 2050 climate goal
And what is already clear is that the scale of the new plan is going to be bigger. Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming Commission president, wants Europe to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. And EU sources say the new circular economy action plan will make up “half” of the carbon cuts expected under the Green Deal.
The 2050 climate objective will be “the big highlight” of the Green Deal and “the headline goal that drives everything else,” Sadauskas indicated.
“Circularity can bridge half of the gap towards the 1.5C target,” the official said, citing heavy industries where circular solutions can help cut “hundreds of millions of tonnes” of CO2.
There is much still to be done to make the economy truly circular, though. Global resource use is expected to double in the next 40 years as a growing share of the Asian population adopts Western lifestyles, Sadauskas pointed out. And much of those materials are still going to waste, he said.
“We’re still living in a linear world,” the official warned, saying only 12% of materials currently find their way back into the economy via recycling and re-use.
“What we’ve done is only laying the foundations,” the EU official said. “But the real big transition still needs to happen and that’s what we’re planning for the next political phase.”
Plenty of ideas
There are already plenty of ideas about what to do next.
Last month, EU member states adopted conclusions on the circular economy, saying “further ambitious efforts are needed to stimulate a systemic transition to a sustainable society”.
National governments notably invited the Commission “to adopt a new circular economy action plan with targeted actions” in industrials sectors which haven’t been tackled before. Industries they mentioned as the next target of EU regulation include textiles, transport, food as well as the construction and demolition sectors.
The EU Council of Ministers also demanded “more measures” to encourage the recycling and re-use of batteries and plastics. And it called on the Commission to assess whether eco-design principles could be extended to “new product groups,” citing ICT products such as computers and smartphones.
Other ideas mentioned in the ministerial declaration include the introduction of new EU criteria on the durability, repairability and recyclability of products, as well as introducing a minimum percentage of recycled materials going into the manufacturing of new products.
This is music to the ears of environmental NGOs, which have long pleaded for extending eco-design rules to new categories of products.
The latest energy-saving standards for appliances such as fridges, TVs and washing-machines, adopted in October this year, will save 170 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy annually by 2030, said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green NGO.
“This is the equivalent to the energy consumption of Italy,” Schweitzer said, describing the related energy savings as “massive” and “a big European success story”.
For the first time, eco-design measures also included provisions to make products easier to recycle with minimum repairability requirements aimed at extending their lifetime, Schweitzer said.
But many other products still aren’t covered by similar rules at the EU level, he added, referring to the building sector, textiles, batteries and ICT.
“There is a hook there for policymakers to make policies which are publicly appealing,” Schweitzer pointed out, drawing attention to the unusually positive headlines seen in the British tabloid press when the latest round of eco-design measures was adopted in October.
Politicians indeed feel encouraged to go further. But they’re also cautious about the impact EU regulations can have on the competitiveness of industry and the price of everyday consumer goods.
While “there is clear momentum” behind restrictions on single-use plastic, some regulations may also trigger “a systemic transition which should also be fair and just,” said Bojan Lalic, environment counsellor at Croatia’s EU representation in Brussels.
“There is a need for further funding,” Lalic told the EURACTIV event, calling for a “holistic view” on climate and industrial policies to make sure no one is left behind in the transition to a more circular economy.
Sadauskas said he understood those concerns but still urged companies to adopt new circular business models, warning they risk going out of business if they fail to do so.
“The circular economy is a transition. And it is meant to be a rather harsh and at times disruptive transition,” the official explained, saying the circular economy “is meant to leave companies doing things the old way simply going out of business”.
Taking single-use plastics as an example, Sadauskas said some manufacturers have stopped using polystyrene for food containers because recyclers simply don’t want those products anymore. And this can be disruptive for companies manufacturing those materials, which risk going out of business if they don’t find alternatives.
“That’s why I’m still surprised there is still such big support from society, knowing it can really disrupt,” the Lithuanian official remarked.
Waste shipment review “already drafted”
Yet, transformation is possible, he added, citing the Belgian materials technology and recycling company Umicore as a shining example of successful industrial transition.
Still a traditional coal mining company in the 1980s, Umicore is now considered one of the big European champions in the refining and recycling of precious metals used in green technologies such as car batteries, Sadauskas pointed out.
But the Belgian company also has its issues with EU policy, particularly when it comes to regulations on chemicals and hazardous waste shipment, which Umicore says prevents the creation of a battery recycling value chain in Europe.
The Commission is aware of the problem and plans to review those rules as part of its upcoming circular economy action plan.
“About waste shipment, we will review it,” Sadauskas said. “In fact, I already have the draft of the review,” he added, saying the new rules will allow waste shipment to take place across borders “so that it goes around just like any other product.”
However, the official also warned the proposal was likely to “face major resistance” from EU member states when it reaches the EU Council of Ministers.
“Member states don’t want to let go of the control. They don’t trust each other. And that’s going to be a major barrier” to pass through legal changes to EU waste rules, he said.