Whatever happened to Europe’s circular economy ambition?

Juggling between their green ambition and a global pandemic, EU institutions and national governments may be losing momentum in the transition to a less wasteful and more circular economy. In this article, we take stock of progress made so far and outline what is at stake.

“We should already be reaping the benefits of a circular economy, where waste is avoided and new business models thrive within planetary boundaries,” stated Piotr Barczak, policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Together with environmental lawyers at ClientEarth and Ecoteca, Barczak recently co-authored a report in which he warns of “dangerous and costly inaction” in the national implementation of the EU’s new waste laws.

In 2018, EU governments and institutions struck a historic agreement introducing what many hailed as the world’s most ambitious set of laws and targets to boost recycling and cut waste. In a nutshell, the new measures would:

  • Make it easier and mandatory to sort and collect different materials for reuse and recycling
  • Reduce food waste
  • Introduce financial incentives to boost the reuse and recycling of packaging
  • Ban the incineration and landfilling of waste collected for recycling or reuse
  • Set higher targets to recycle and reuse discarded products
  • Make producers pay more for the collection and recycling of packaging waste
  • Set a more accurate methodology to assess recycling rates

Two years later, most EU countries have missed the July deadline for their transposition into national legislation – these include major economies such as Germany, Finland, Spain, Sweden and Poland. The authors surveyed all 27 member states and found that 16 of them were yet to adopt the laws. At the time of writing, the remaining 11 countries have failed to notify the NGOs about their plans,  suggesting that the delays may be more widely spread than officially reported.

However, since the publication of the report in October more countries may have submitted their implementation plans, and “we certainly hope they did,” added Barczak.

“Failure to move forward with the implementation of these laws is hurting people, municipalities and small businesses the most. Because of the pandemic, local authorities are struggling to collect recyclable materials, which is undermining recycling operations and costing taxpayers’ money,” he said.

According to a timely report published this month by consultants at Materials Economics, efforts to halve food waste alone, including better waste sorting and collection, could save European households an estimated €600 a year by 2030. “We risk losing out on massive economic and environmental benefits,” Barczak commented.

Slow progress and missed opportunities

Despite some encouraging progress at the local level, efforts to reduce waste and improve resource management across the EU are still too weak.

The EU currently consumes more than its fair share of natural resources – almost the same as if we had three planets available to support our consumption. The bloc’s circular material use rate is around 11%, showing no significant improvement in the last half a decade.

In 2017, only 30% of the EU’s household waste were recycled and 17% were composted, compared to 28% that were incinerated and 24% buried in dumpsites.

This recently prompted the European Commission to send warnings to 14 governments at risk of missing their current national target of 50% recycling and preparation for reuse by 2020.

As part of the new laws, recycling targets are set to increase gradually over the next 15 years. Yet, the legislative delays at national level risk making it harder for governments to meet higher targets, according to Barczak.

Measures for sustainable products under attack

It is not just national governments delaying progress – the European Parliament in Brussels is also throwing a spanner in the works.

In a vote that took place last week, the Parliament’s Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection voted against measures that would help countries avoid waste by making more easily repairable electronics the norm. Led by liberal and conservative parties, the committee rejected a mandatory labelling system for repairable products, as well as rules against premature obsolescence and sustainability targets for public procurement.

Green groups and consumer organisations deem these provisions a necessary step to scale up the market for sustainable, repairable, and longer lasting products.

The rules were first proposed by the European Commission earlier this year as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan – a strategy aiming to rethink the way our everyday products are manufactured, used, and disposed of. Last year, a survey by Eurobarometer found that eight in ten Europeans agree that manufacturers should be required to make it easier to repair digital devices.

The European Parliament will discuss the measures in plenary in the coming months, with a vote expected before the end of the year.

A post-pandemic economy must be circular and resilient

From increased efficiency in product design and materials use to sustainable supply chains, these discussions appear more relevant than ever in a post-pandemic economy.

“The same principles that apply to a circular economy can also help Europe recover from the fallout of COVID-19,“ said Stephane Arditi, policy manager at the EEB. “This is the time to accelerate rather delay the transition, he tells us.

According to the report by Materials Economics, a more circular economy could reduce costs and create a value of over €500 billion a year by 2030. Put in the context of an average household in the EU, energy and resource savings would correspond to €2400 per household every year.

However, the report estimates that the EU is already at risk of losing out on €50 to 70 billion a year in benefits that seemed guaranteed before the crisis. Falling raw materials prices and reduced demand for recycled materials – including plastic and textiles – have already hit the recycling and repair industries, with many local businesses risking going bust without financial support and targeted investments. 

According to Arditi, the upcoming €750 billion that the EU has promised national governments to help them recover from the crisis provide an opportunity to support these industries. 

Governments will have to submit detailed national plans upon which the decision to issue grants, loans and investments will depend. At least 37% of the money should go towards projects that help protect the environment in line with the European Green Deal.

“We have a unique opportunity to create new jobs and bolster the resilience of our industry, while also mitigating its dependency on the imports and extraction of raw materials. This is the kind of progress we need,” Arditi concluded.


The EEB has published a series of briefs highlighting legislative progress and best practices in the EU on specific topics, including: 

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

A zero waste manifesto: 10 priorities to reduce waste.