The ink was barely dry on the European Commission’s circular economy (CE) package of measures before the European Parliament was criticising it for lack of ambition in its recycling targets.
These are notably lower than the targets outlined in the first such proposal.
So is the new package produced by the Commission ‘more ambitious’, and does it include the measures necessary to drive a revolution in the European economy to a more sustainable and circular model?
It is undeniable that the recycling targets are lower. The original draft of the CE package, published in July 2014, contained targets of 70% recycling of municipal solid waste (MSW) and 80% recycling of packaging waste by 2030. The new draft contains targets of 65% and 75%, respectively.
This sits at odds with a resolution of the European Parliament in July 2015 which advocated strict limits on incineration of recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2020, phasing in a ban on landfilling by 2030, and raising targets for recycling and preparation for reuse to at least 70% of MSW and 80% of packaging waste by 2030.
However, the recycling targets should also been seen in the wider context of the proposal. This includes a ban on landfilling separately collected waste, as well as a binding target to reduce landfilled waste to 10% of all waste generated. Overall, these measures should combine to signal the death knell for mass landfilling, which is clearly a fundamental step to ensuring that the value of resources is retained in the economy beyond the end of a product’s life.
In terms of incentivising recycling, some within the waste industry have already expressed disappointment about the targets in the CE proposal and said that, more generally, there are no strong drivers to build a sustainable market for recycled materials and products. Concerns have long been raised about the lack of drivers on the manufacturing side to design and build easily recyclable products, and to use secondary raw materials where available and suitable. It is questionable whether these have been fully addressed by the Commission.
Industry has also long warned of the inability to operate facilities that manufacture secondary raw materials in a sustainable way without a clear price differential between virgin and recovered materials in this context. Manufacturers and developers will specify virgin materials over secondary materials if there is no price differential between the two. This point is not addressed in the proposals.
The target of a 30% improvement in resource efficiency does not feature in the current draft. ‘Demand side’ measures will be developed through an ecodesign working plan, while various other measures will be progressed through an action plan, including a strategy on plastics and the development of quality standards for secondary raw materials. Action on food waste is also to be progressed under the action plan, with no draft legislation set out at this stage.
It would have been much more encouraging to see concrete proposals on some of these elements of the package – indeed, it was the desire to develop these areas that justified the withdrawal of the original, more waste-focused, package at the end of 2014.
Arguably, until such elements of the package start to take clearer shape, it is difficult to view the package as containing the necessary measures for a truly circular economy, with its focus remaining very much on waste management.
The European Parliament and Council now have to determine whether to endorse the package. It will be interesting to see if the Parliament has anything further to say on the recycling targets, which it has already criticised as being too low.
In any event, industry should be poised to make sure its voice is heard as the proposals continue to take shape in the coming months.
Fiona Ross is an associate at Pinsent Masons LLP