Transitioning to the circular economy

Transitioning to the circular economy

March 5, 2019
Marcia González

Yesterday the European Commission adopted a Report on its 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy – aimed at boosting global competitiveness, fostering sustainable economic growth and generating new jobs. In this Q&A, we look at how the EC plans to help companies and member states achieve these goals

What is the circular economy?
To ensure sustainable growth for the European Union (EU), we have to use our resources in a smarter, more sustainable way. What is clear is that the linear model of economic growth we relied upon in the past is no longer suited to the needs of today’s modern societies in a globalized world. We cannot build our future on a ‘take-make-dispose’ model. Many natural resources are finite, so we must find an environmentally and economically sustainable way of using them.

In a circular economy the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible; waste and resource use are minimized, and resources are kept within the economy when a product has reached the end of its life, to be used again and again to create further value. This model can create secure jobs in Europe and promote innovation that offer a competitive advantage. It can also provide consumers with more durable and innovative products that provide monetary savings and an increased quality of life.

Waste and resource use are minimized, and resources are kept within the economy when a product has reached the end of its life, to be used again and again to create further value

What was in the Commission’s Circular Economy Package?
To facilitate the move to a more circular economy, in December 2015 the Commission put forward a first Circular Economy Package, which included revised legislative proposals on waste, as well as a comprehensive Circular Economy Action Plan setting out a concrete mandate for this Commission’s term of office.

The Action Plan on the Circular Economy set out measures to ‘close the loop’ of the circular economy and tackle all phases in the lifecycle of a product: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials. The Action Plan also included a number of initiatives that will target market barriers or boost circularity in specific sectors or material streams, such as plastics, food waste, critical raw materials, construction and demolition, biomass and bio-based products, as well as horizontal measures in areas such as innovation and investment.

In 2018, this first set of measures was complemented by the second Circular Economy Package, including the EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy, Monitoring Framework of Indicators for the Circular Economy, a Communication on the interface between chemicals, products and waste legislation. The Commission also made a proposal for a Directive addressing single-use plastics and fishing gear – the two most important sources of European plastic marine litter.

What has been done to address specific challenges in the plastics industry? What about marine litter?
The EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy is the first EU-wide policy framework adopting a material-specific lifecycle approach to integrate circular design, use, reuse and recycling activities into plastics value chains. As such, it is a catalyzer for action. The Strategy sets out a clear vision with quantified objectives at the EU level, so that inter alia by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is reusable or recyclable.

The Strategy sets out a clear vision with quantified objectives at the EU level, so that inter alia by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the EU market is reusable or recyclable

The recently established Circular Plastics Alliance will facilitate next steps by businesses to bridge the current gap between the supply and demand for recycled plastics, improve the quality and economics of plastics recycling and subsequently achieve the EU target that 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into products in Europe by 2025. In response to the call from the Commission, 70 companies and business organizations submitted voluntary pledges to produce or use more recycled plastics by 2025. The pledges submitted by industry so far will increase the market for recycled plastics by at least 60% by 2025, but further efforts are necessary to ensure the 10 million tonnes target is reached.

Key milestones were already delivered to achieve higher quality recycling of plastics. These include the new recycling target for plastic packaging, set at 55% in 2030, obligations for separate collection and improvements in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes. The latter are expected to facilitate design for recyclability through ‘eco-modulation’ of producers’ fees.

Evidence of potential health and environmental risks of microplastic pollution justifies restricting the use of intentionally added microplastics. The Commission has requested ECHA (the European Chemicals Agency) to prepare an opinion on microplastics intentionally added to products, which once ready the Commission will analyze.

The rules on Single-Use Plastics items and fishing gear, addressing the 10 most-found items on EU beaches, on port reception facilities, and the Commission’s proposals on fisheries control, place the EU at the forefront of the global fight against marine litter – one of the major concerns of EU citizens when it comes to plastic pollution.

These sets of tailored measures, undergoing final steps of the legislative procedure, include a ban on selected single-use products made of plastic (cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons), cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and on all products made of oxo-degradable plastic.

There are also measures to reduce consumption of food containers and beverage cups made of plastic and specific marking and labelling of certain products.

A target to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles as from 2025 is included and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030, as well as a 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029 (77% bottles by 2025) and the introduction of design requirements to connect caps to bottles.

A target to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles as from 2025 is included and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030

Extended Producer Responsibility schemes are also among the measures, covering the cost to clean-up litter, applied to products such as tobacco filters and fishing gear.

And finally there are measures aimed at reducing plastic litter from ships such as the establishment of a flat fee for waste from ships, which will include improved reporting obligations for lost fishing gear and obligations for marking and control of fishing gear for recreational fisheries.

How has waste management improved?
To modernize waste management systems in the European Union and to consolidate the European model as one of the most effective in the world, a revised waste legislative framework entered into force in July 2018. This includes new ambitious yet realistic recycling rates: by 2030, 70% of all packaging waste and 60% of municipal waste (65% by 2035) should be recycled, while reducing landfilling of municipal waste to 10%. It will include the simplification and harmonization of definitions and calculation methods and clarified legal status for recycled materials and by-products. There will be reinforced rules and new obligations on separate collection (bio-waste, textiles and hazardous waste produced by households, construction and demolition waste). There will be minimum requirements for Extended Producer Responsibility and finally strengthened waste prevention and waste management measures, including for marine litter, food waste, and products containing critical raw materials.

The Commission is supporting and engaging with member states in the implementation of the waste legislation to increase visibility and understanding of circular economy opportunities in those member states that have the biggest challenges in meeting their recycling targets. Through targeted country visits led by Commissioners, experts from different member states will share experiences and advise on how to reach best the objectives of the waste policies.

The Commission is supporting and engaging with member states in the implementation of the waste legislation to increase visibility and understanding of circular economy opportunities

What has been done to promote the conversion of waste into resources (secondary raw materials)?
The new Fertilising Products Regulation introduces harmonized rules for organic fertilizers manufactured from secondary raw materials such as agricultural by-products and recovered bio-waste. The new Regulation will facilitate the conversion of bio-waste into a useful fertilizing material and make European farming less dependent on imported mined and fossil raw materials such as natural gas and phosphate rock.

A proposal for a Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse was adopted on 28 May 2018. The proposed legislation sets minimum requirements for reused water for agricultural irrigation. It aims at encouraging the safe, efficient and cost-effective reuse of treated urban wastewater, in doing so turning a wasted resource into a valuable one for further use and addressing water scarcity.

A Communication adopted in January 2018 on the interface between chemicals, product and waste legislation launched a wide debate on the way to tackle four main obstacles impeding the safe uptake of Secondary Raw Materials. A preliminary analysis of the results of the consultation confirms general agreement among stakeholders on the relevance of the identified barriers.

What about biomass and bio-based products?
The EU Bioeconomy Strategy was updated in 2018 and proposes 14 concrete actions in three priority areas: strengthening and scaling-up the bio-based sectors as well as unlocking investments and markets; rapidly deploying bioeconomies across the whole of Europe; and understanding the ecological boundaries of the bioeconomy.

The Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) contains provisions referring to circular economy and waste hierarchy. These address the risk of conflicting use of biomass resources between energy and non-energy sectors and of creating financial incentives that would undermine the separate collection obligations set out in the Waste Framework Directive.

The Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) contains provisions referring to circular economy and waste hierarchy

Will consumers have access to information on the environmental performance of products?
The European Commission tested the use of the Product Environmental Footprint method in producing reliable, reproducible and comparable information on the environmental performance of products, considering the whole supply chain, from the extraction of raw materials to the moment the product becomes waste, is reused or recycled.

Based on the promising results of this pilot phase, the Commission is considering potential future policy applications for the method, including considerations on how to use them for informing consumers on environmental performance.

How is implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan being monitored?
A Monitoring Framework of Indicators for the Circular Economy was published in January 2018. The framework helps to measure progress towards a circular economy at the EU and national level. It is composed of a set of 10 key indicators that cover each phase – i.e. production, consumption, waste management and secondary raw materials – as well as economic aspects i.e. investments, jobs, gross value added and innovation. Consistency with the monitoring of other measurable trends such as the progress on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is ensured by establishing common indicators. The indicators and underlying data are publicly available on a dedicated EUROSTAT website.

Werner Bosmans, Director General Environment, will be giving a keynote speech at Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019 on the subject of the circular economy and the EU’s Plastic Strategy. The event will take place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

 

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