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Think circular

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:04

The European Commission is about to propose its long awaited Circular Economy Package which will include a revision of the EU’s directives on waste. Piotr Barczak from the European Environmental Bureau explains why ambitious waste targets and product design requirements are necessary to trigger systemic change that brings about a circular economy in Europe


The need to move to a circular economy is a no-brainer. Our model of production and consumption in Europe is unsustainable. Too many of our products end up as waste, the materials they contain are being landfilled or destroyed in incinerators at an ever faster rate. The world can not afford to continue wasting so many of its resources. Especially not resource-poor and import-dependent Europe.

So what should we do about it?

First, we need to change our mindset about waste. Waste means resources, which in turn have economic value. Today Europe sends over 50 per cent of its waste to landfill and incinerators, which is an economic folly as well as an environmental one.

Waste prevention and recycling can become drivers of the European economy and its industries

They should not be seen as obstacles to growth or a burden on businesses, as they often are. A European Environmental Bureau study showed that if the EU adopted higher recycling targets and reuse targets for products among other things, it could create as many as 860,000 new jobs. The ‘three Rs’ – reduction, reuse and recycling – can shift the focus of decision makers from waste generation to waste prevention. They can also help secure Europe’s access to a plentiful pool of secondary materials which will make our economies more resilient to resource shortages and price hikes.

Secondly, how our products are designed strongly influences if and when these products become waste. By setting requirements that get manufacturers to design their products to be more repairable and easier to re-manufacture, we can cut down on a lot of unnecessary waste and at the same time make it easier for affordable repair services to become mainstream.

The EU’s Ecodesign Directive can help here. It already helps deliver energy savings on electrical and electronic products and could also deliver resource savings. Better product design and ambitious waste targets must go hand-in-hand to unlock the potential of a circular economy. In that kind of economy, nothing is lost but so much is gained.

Thirdly, we have to overcome legislative paralysis. The argument goes that because the situation across the EU is heterogeneous, there can not be one set of rules for the continent. True, some countries are more advanced than others. Flanders already recycles 70% of its municipal waste while Romania still landfills almost all of its waste. But the EU must aim high to improve the situation everywhere.

Every member state stands to gain from higher recycling or re-use of products, from lower environmental costs associated with closing landfills and incinerators to the economic and social benefits of job creation through increased recycling and re-use. Our policymakers have to start thinking beyond ‘linear economics’, in which a product is made, sold and then discarded, and embrace the circular approach, where we re-use products and recycle and, above all, prevent unnecessary waste.

The Circular Economy Package, when it is released later this year, must provide a comprehensive and ambitious regulatory framework which allows new business models like repair services and product leasing schemes to enter the mainstream. The European Parliament issued a report in July where it called for the Commission to integrate high recycling targets in its proposal and make use of the EU’s product policies to ensure Europe becomes more resource-efficient.

Forward-thinking companies, organizations and citizens are signing up to the circular economy and creating ever more innovative schemes and services. The value that is locked up in a more resource-efficient economic model is of the tune of $600 billion with over 2 million jobs. We want the European Commission to think circular and help deliver these benefits.

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Piotr Barczak works as a Waste Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau, chairing its working group on waste. The group consists of experts on waste from EU member states.The European Environmental Bureau launched the Make Resources Count campaign earlier this year to encourage the EU to be bold when it launches the Circular Economy Package. The European Environmental Bureau is Europe’s largest federation of environmental organisations with more than 140 members who gain their membership from the general public. Because of this, we are guided by the voices of 15 million European citizens, and act as the ears and voice of its members towards EU decision makers.