The headline announcement by the European Commission on 2 July sets EU-wide targets to recycle 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging waste by 2030 and to work towards ending the landfilling of recyclable waste by 2025. But the Commission’s plans for a “circular economy” are even more ambitious and wide ranging.
The concept of a circular economy is not easily summarised, but it aims to decouple economic growth from consumption of resources through various means, including reduction in material waste. The familiar idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is just a starting point for plans that environment commissioner Janez Potocnik believes could benefit not just the environment, but also the competitiveness of companies and the jobs they create.
Imposing a ban on landfill is a great way to increase recycling. Germany’s system ensures recycling or energy recovery of waste. PlasticsEurope has been calling for Zero Plastics to Landfill by 2020.
But the Commission’s plans for a circular economy raises questions about the efficiency and environmental benefits of this new approach. After all, vertical structures in markets already deliver efficiency through cost reduction – costs including material waste, which companies try to cut through lightweighting, recycling of scrap and so on.
In the Commission’s circular economy, what if there is an environmental conflict between using a recycled option or one that is not recycled, but has a lower carbon footprint? Disapproval of products intended for single-use could lead to unintended environmental impacts from substitute products.
Will there be safeguards to prevent the circular mission becoming dogmatic and being given special status even if it is clear that it is not the best option in every instance?
It won’t be the Commission that delivers the circular economy: as with any economic activity, it will be companies, workers, buyers and sellers. Nonetheless, it has played a loud fanfare that could help bring in a new era of resource management and economics.
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