Experts call for swift action as governments approach the deadline for the implementation of the EU’s new recycling and waste reduction laws.

Mauro Anastasio talks to the EEB’s waste policy guru Piotr Barczak to understand where we stand and what is needed to help Europe fully transition towards a circular economy.

We should have been fast approaching a major milestone for Europe’s circular economy community.

By 5 July 2020, EU governments should have formally adopted the most ambitious set of measures and targets ever agreed to boost recycling and reduce waste. The end goal is to promote responsible and resilient business models as agreed in 2018 under three different pieces of EU legislation: The Waste Framework Directive, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive and the Landfill Directive.

The measures range from the mandatory separate collection of all household waste – paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles as well as hazardous and organic waste – to a ban on the incineration and landfilling of waste collected for recycling. Policymakers also agreed to introduce schemes making producers pay for the collection and recycling of their products and incentivising consumers to return bottles and other types of packaging.

See timeline for the implementation of new measures and recycling targets

“It was a landmark achievement,” according to the EEB’s Piotr Barczak, one of Europe’s top experts on waste policy. “The agreed laws can really support the transition to a circular economy,“ he tells META.

But two years later, things have not panned out as expected. While European leaders have continued to champion plans for the transition to a circular economy – most recently with the publication of the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan – many countries are still lagging behind in the implementation of measures that should have already been implemented.

Falling short

The stats speak for themselves. In 2017, only 30% and 17% of household waste across the EU was respectively recycled and composted, while 28% was incinerated and 24% buried in dumpsites.

In 2018, the European Commission sent warnings to 14 governments at risk of missing their current national target of 50% recycling and preparation for reuse by 2020. The warnings included recommendations on the implementation of separate waste collection laws, landfill and incineration taxes, schemes to increase producer responsibility and legally binding rules for the separate collection of waste.

According to Barczak,  only five governments have so far officially reported progress on the national transposition of the EU’s new waste laws. That’s despite being legally obliged to do so by 5 July 2020.

Poland, one of the countries targeted by the Commission in 2018, openly said it will need more time to comply, citing the recent Covid-19 crisis as an excuse. Germany and a few other countries have also put forward similar arguments.

In the meantime, with 487kg of waste per person generated in 2017 compared to 479kg in 2013, the EU seems unable to significantly reduce the amount of waste generated across the bloc.

This may partially explain why recycling rates are not growing faster. “We must stop valuable resources from ending up in dumpsites and incinerators. It’s time to tackle the problem at the source by reducing waste through reusable and repairable solutions for our everyday products, from packaging to electronics,” Barczak said.

Turning waste into opportunity

Of course, it is not all bad. EU governments can take inspiration from several positive examples in municipalities and regions across the bloc.

Cities like Ljubljana and Milan have become leading examples for successful waste management thanks to the implementation of measures such as the separate door-to-door collection of waste materials, especially organic waste. As separate collection and recycling rates increase, nearing 70% in Ljubljana, the amount of mixed waste destined for dumpsites and incinerators has declined consistently over time.

The streets of Ljubljana. Photo by Paweł Głuszyński

Many countries have also taken steps to avoid waste altogether. Since 2015, France has banned planned obsolescence – a practice whereby manufacturers may deliberately shorten the lifespans of products to incentivise the new sales. A violation of this law can result in a sentence of up to two years in prison or a €300,000 fine.

These examples show that all it takes is political will to move things forward, said Barczak.

While recognising that the Covid-19 crisis has slowed down progress recently, Barczak warned against using it as an excuse. “Many of these laws were already agreed two years ago and governments have had enough time to implement them,” he said.

Spain, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis, should be seen as an example in this regard, Barczak said. The government has recently put forward a proposal for a new circular economy law including the transposition of the new EU laws.

“Better waste management and prevention should be part of a broader recovery plan for Europe, given the potential in terms of job creation, savings to both consumers and businesses and wider societal benefits,” Barczak said.

Cycle of life

Speaking of crises, he points out that waste prevention is one of the most effective ways to counter the single biggest threat to life on Earth: climate breakdown.

The production of goods and their supply chain is partially responsible for our rapidly changing climate. A study by Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that the way we produce, use and dispose of our products is responsible for 45% of the world’s total emissions.

“The amount of rubbish we generate reflects the production patterns in our economy. The more products and materials we waste, the more energy and resources we’ll need to produce new ones,” Barczak explains.

Asked what piece of advice he would give national ministers today, he says:

“If they want more time, they should ensure their waste laws go above and beyond what was previously agreed. This is in their own interest, as the new Circular Economy Action Plan has already anticipated there will be higher targets and stricter rules which, once formally adopted, governments will have to implement.”

“If they want more time, they should ensure their waste laws go above and beyond what was previously agreed.

Piotr Barczak, EEB policy officer

Resources

The EEB has published a series of briefs highlighting legislative progress and best practices in the EU: on economic incentives; on waste prevention and reuse; on separate collection.

When and what: A timeline for the implementation of new measures and recycling targets

A zero waste manifesto: 10 priorities to reduce waste

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