NGOs urge the EU to save unsold goods from destruction

Tonnes of unsold or returned products are destroyed every year by producers and online retailers. This comes at a high cost for people and nature, and contradicts EU environmental targets. NGOs are calling on the European Commission to end such wasteful outrage, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

A new publication written by Ökopol for the European Environmental Bureau sheds a light on the scale of the problem, and outlines recommendations for EU policy makers to intervene.

From clothing to electronics, toys, food and drugs, the careless practice of sending unsold products to waste plagues most sectors, as exposed by recent scandals from France to Germany and the UK.

Unsold or returned textiles and electronics are the most likely to be destroyed, and with the rise of e-commerce and business strategies such as fast fashion, the trend is set to worsen dramatically.

If all clothing and electronics shipments destroyed in Europe in 2020 were lined up one after the other, they would cover one and a half times the Earth’s circumference, as estimated by the policy brief. The scale could rise up to 6 times the Earth’s circumference in 2030.

Projections show the value of destroyed electronics and clothing in the EU will amount to €21.74 billion by 2022, which is larger than the entire GDP of Cyprus for the year 2020. If no policy measures are taken, this could increase by up to €71.29 billion by 2030, as much as the revenue generated by the entire German e-commerce market in 2019.

The cost of destruction

The destruction of unsold goods comes at an extremely high cost for people and the environment. It involves the pointless extraction and overconsumption of natural resources, and the emission of CO2 and hazardous substances from raw materials extraction to waste treatment – all of this for products whose actual potential will never be realised.

At the same time, destroying or disposing of perfectly viable products is at odds with the objectives of the EU Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan.

This is why the European Environmental Bureau demands a ban on the destruction of unsold goods, and incentives to keep the products on the market or promote donations instead of destruction. These demands should be included in the Commission’s Sustainable Products Initiative, to be published by the end of 2021.

Upscaling solutions

With the scandal of retailers destroying unsold goods hitting the news all across Europe, some governments have taken steps to address the issue in their national legislation. Belgium, France and Germany are among the countries who engaged to prevent valuable products from going up in smoke. Their initiatives include banning products destruction, promoting reuse, reducing VAT on the donation of unsold goods for charitable purposes, extending producers’ responsibility over their products, and introducing a ‘duty of care’ and reporting obligations.

Campaigners welcomed the effort by national governments, but warned that such measures need to be further developed to close potential loopholes, and to be upscaled at the single-market level in order to be truly effective.

Stéphane Arditi, Director of Circular Economy at the EEB, told META:

“This outrage cannot be solved at the national level, as long as products can be exported and destroyed elsewhere. The Commission must build on national solutions and ban the destruction of unsold goods at the EU level. We cannot afford to send perfectly viable products to waste while precious resources are depleted to make new ones”.

Especially when it comes to electronics, Europe’s consumption of metals and minerals is far from sustainable and it is set to increase, with the digital transition fuelling the demand for yet more devices. A recent report by the EEB and Friends of the Earth Europe calls on the EU to slash resource consumption by two-thirds in order to prevent human and ecological disaster.

At the same time, electronic waste is the fastest growing of waste streams, accounting for 70% of the toxic waste in US landfills. In Germany, of the 723,000 tonnes of electronic waste collected for treatment, only about 15,000 tonnes are prepared for reuse.