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New European circular economy package fails to hit radical note needed


Closed Loop Recycling Plant, U.K.

Dagenham’s Closed Loop Recycling plant is the first in the UK to produce food grade recycled plastic from bottle waste. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “New European circular economy package fails to hit radical note needed” was written by Maxine Perella, for on Thursday 17th July 2014 16.17 UTC

Can policy intervention help lay the foundations for circular economy delivery? And if so, what should such an enabling framework look like? Judging by the mixed reaction to one early contender, the European Commission’s circular economy package, and the latest soundings from UK parliament on the issue, reaching a consensus on this issue seems near impossible.

Last month the Commission set out its circular economy stall, with a raft of policy levers and targets – some binding, some aspirational. The thrust of the European package, however, appears to rely on squeezing the best out of a linear economy for the 28 EU member states, rather than risking more radical step change.

Landfill bans and higher recycling targets for municipal waste and packaging materials sit at the core of the package. Recycling is the resource recovery loop least favoured by circular innovators as it disregards the tighter, more aspirational loops of product redesign, repair, remanufacture and reuse. According to Joan Marc Simon, who co-ordinates Europe’s zero waste network, if you’re talking circular, recycling should be the last option.

“The core of a circular economy framework lies on reusability of materials and products. This requires better product design, but also process redesign. It requires blending product and waste policy with elements of the sharing economy and adapting current taxation systems to a new scenario in which reusing goods is easier and cheaper than using disposable products,” he says.

It’s a view shared by Piotr Barczak, waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau. “For this to be a truly circular economy package, it would need to link up with the policies that determine how products are made and encourage longer life products. This would help end overconsumption, overproduction and poor product design.”

Barczak says the package should have contained a more ambitious resource productivity objective, plus more incentives and requirements for good product design. The absence of waste prevention targets and specific measures to target reuse further weakens an already watered down framework, he adds. Marc Simon agrees, and feels the Commission could have done a lot more to prioritise reuse – simply stipulating a combined recycling/reuse target suggests a policy fail, as recycling applies to materials while reuse applies to products.

On a wider level, such a legislative approach is potentially damaging as it risks locking an economy into waste treatment infrastructure that effectively downcycles materials. Any educational message around circularity is also lost. “Waste targets got the attention with the European Commission circular economy package and so it becomes a recycling issue,” notes Susanne Baker, senior climate and environment policy adviser at the manufacturers’ organisation EEF.

A systems change

Part of the problem is that any political discussion around enabling circular economy action tends to slip into a waste conversation very quickly. A circular economy parliamentary debate held at Westminster earlier this week, co-hosted by Resource Event, the Green Alliance and British Standards Institution, was dominated by arguments on how the UK’s disjointed recycling system could be fixed, rather than how to ignite full systemic change throughout the whole economy.

This is leading some to question whether policy intervention is the best tool to help us break out of institutionalised mindsets and practices. James Greyson, an independent circular economy analyst, argues that the circular economy relies on disruptive technologies and mechanisms breaking through – and that too much regulation could be in danger of smothering that. “People always say that targets provide certainty … but for system level change they’re actually optional,” he maintains.

“Targets can be self-defeating if the certainty they offer is that we’re still attempting change incrementally with top down rules where everyone’s role is to comply. Higher targets always look difficult so the risk is that people end up using their creative energy to work around them. Clever policy can instead harness people’s creative energy to find all kinds of amazing solutions that do more and go faster than any target that can be agreed politically.”


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