02 December 2015

European Commission (EC) adopts ambitious new Circular Economy Package

COP21 is taking place in Paris, with powerful opening speeches by HRH Prince Charles and President Obama. It hopes to reach a global consensus on ambitious measures to become a more sustainable planet.


About 165 miles Northwest from Paris lies the Belgian capital, Brussels.  There today, the European Commission adopted their revised Circular Economy package, with "funding of over €650 million under Horizon 2020 and €5.5 billion under the structural funds".  Although some may express concern with various targets being watered-down, the new proposals have the potential to transform not just European society's attitude to waste (or resource as it should be regarded), but also the design of products themselves.  This is big news not just for the environment, but for new innovative business models, job creation, and ultimately, nudging new attitudes away from consumerism.  It has the potential to 'rewire' the economy which recent generations have become accustomed to in Europe.


In the diagram above, which was originally posted here, I've adapted a 'waste hierarchy' to show a broader view, which I've called a 'resource hierarchy'.  The central pyramid shows a prioritisation of approach to managing resource, with the concepts towards the top being preferable to those lower-down.  The left-hand side shows associated business models, and on the right, implications on products. In essence, it's simply common sense - it's best to eliminate the cause of waste at its origin, than deal with the the waste by-product afterwards.  Of course, products can't always simply be eliminated, so it's important that any new proposals from the EC tackle all of the levels in the pyramid.  Let's see if they do...
Towards the bottom of the pyramid is sending waste to landfill, energy from waste, recycling, and repurposing products for another use.  The proposals from the EC have some ambition in this area:
  • A common EU target for recycling 65% of municipal waste by 2030;
  • A common EU target for recycling 75% of packaging waste by 2030;
  • A binding landfill target to reduce landfill to maximum of 10% of all waste by 2030;
  • A ban on landfilling of separately collected waste;
  • Promotion of economic instruments to discourage landfilling ;
  • Simplified and improved definitions and harmonised calculation methods for recycling rates throughout the EU;
  • Concrete measures to promote re-use and stimulate industrial symbiosis –turning one industry's by-product into another industry's raw material;
  • Economic incentives for producers to put greener products on the market and support recovery and recycling schemes (e.g. for packaging, batteries, electric and electronic equipment, vehicles).
Alongside a specific strategy to limit the damage plastics can make (in particular for marine life), the most exciting part of the proposals relate to some of the areas towards the top of the pyramid:
  • Development of quality standards for secondary raw materials to increase the confidence of operators in the single market;
  • Measures in the Ecodesign working plan for 2015-2017 to promote reparability, durability and recyclability of products, in addition to energy efficiency
These are the areas which have the potential to disrupt and challenge some incumbent business models and products, helping us ask:
  • Why can't I easily repair the screen on my mobile phone?  And why shouldn't I be able to replace the battery?
  • Why do washing machines always always seem to break just after the 2 year warranty period expires?
  • Why do I find I wear some clothes only a few times before they wear out?
  • Although I got this appliance cheaply, it has really high running costs, as it uses so much energy.  Why can't the manufacture lease the appliance to me, and they can pay for the energy costs?

Finally, food waste is of course a particular concern, with a recent focus in the UK by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his '#WasteNot' campaign.  The EC has a specific approach for this, albeit with 'tools' rather than binding targets:
  • Actions to reduce food waste including a common measurement methodology, improved date marking, and tools to meet the global Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030

It will be interesting to see how the "European Parliament and Council...build on this important preparatory work and prioritise adoption and implementation of today's legislative proposals".  It will be such a 'waste' if the opportunity isn't exploited for this package of proposals to be a powerful ally and tool for Europe to support COP21 agreements.

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