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Going round the Circular Economy debate in Brussels

More than 700 Europeans crammed into the Commission’s Charlemagne building in Brussels at 9am to discuss the ‘circular economy’ with politicians, business people and academics. Those of us too slow to take one of the 450 seats in the Alcide de Gasperi conference area were diverted to smaller rooms, where the opening remarks were broadcast live and questions to the panel was enabled via sheets of paper.

As many speakers, particularly members of the Commission, were keen to stress, this was a defining moment for economics as we knew them. Like the industrial revolution before it, they said, the circular economy was going to redefine the way businesses operated when it had been implemented. Impassioned speeches from delegates made this seem inevitable; the only question was how it could be achieved.

The answer was supposed to come in the Commission’s revised ‘more ambitious’ circular economy package, due for release this autumn, which discussions at the Charlemagne were supposed to feed into. Attendees therefore arrived poised with research offerings, questions and hoping for some indication of the proposals’ content.

Introductory speeches came from the Commission’s first vice-president Frans Timmermanns and environment commissioner Karmenu Vella. Both spoke of the need for their legislation to include ‘concrete’ targets and regulation. Some attendees privately spoke of their disappointment that the pair didn’t include any of their own. But it was clear the Commission wanted to listen, not contribute or direct the specific policy ideas. Other introductions followed, including Ellen McArthur’s presentation of her foundation’s study into the economic potential for going circular.

After the audience had listened to the headline speakers offer their food for thought, some more primal nourishment was offered in the building’s two stacked low-ceilinged lobbies. Canapes and sparkling wine were hoovered up by delegates from all across Europe, just after midday, as they shared early reflections and explained to each other the specific issues they wanted addressing.

Original waste management proposals including uniform recycling percentage targets had been scrapped the previous December to include the rest of the supply chain. Many attendees were pleased the Commission was now considering tailoring specific goals to each country. Newer EU members were never going to reach the high targets other states could, they said, because they lacked the expertise to implement the necessary infrastructure to achieve those goals. Richer member states like Germany, meanwhile, would reach the targets too easily.

The second half in the Gasperi room raised many other issues measuring what counts as recycled, with different material directives giving varying definitions. Many attendees said that diverting materials from landfill wasn’t enough for something to be considered ‘recycled’. A Dutch delegate said that ‘backfilling’, refilling an excavated hole with similar material, was considered an avoidance of landfill in his country despite being equally wasteful and having even worse environmental impact.

Some delegates argued weight was an inaccurate measure for materials diverted from landfill. Suez’s David Palmer-Jones, representing the European federation Fead, gave the example of wet grass clippings skewing figures by being unrepresentatively heavy. Construction waste was talked of as an untapped resource by one speaker while another spoke about the difficulties of collecting accurate data for material that is often separated into many different streams.

On the flip side, one session focused on the lack of a market for the recycled materials produced. While driving up rates of recycling was commendable, it was pointless if nobody wanted to buy the end product. Suspicion of chemical contamination was the most common reason given for buyers’ preference for virgin resources. Incentivising the purchase of secondary materials through tax breaks and other financial measures was one popular suggestion.

But the imposition of landfill restrictions was backed my many. Jeremy Wates of the European Environmental Bureau quoted examples of when binding recycling targets were not in place and rates subsequently dropped. Other speakers agreed, saying the new package should set targets at least as high as the scrapped proposals.

To please everyone, therefore, the Commission may have to set ‘ambitious yet realistic’ recycling targets that are country and resource specific. It must also offer training to civil servants in countries that lack the infrastructure to achieve their goal. Clear definitions of what constitutes recycling must also be included as well as measurement methodology. All this and much more, including export regulation and extended producer responsibility for a set of proposals due to be released in a few months, seems an ambitious goal of its own.

At the delayed conclusion of the day-long session, many delegates in the still-packed conference room politely said their goodbyes before jumping into the nearest taxi and racing to catch Eurostar. With nearby roads closed off due to the heated discussions being held nearby regarding Greece’s EU debts, traffic was as slow as ketchup.

Judging by the packed return carriage, however, most fellow travellers had caught their train in the nick of time. Empassioned debates continued between some passengers who had attended the conference until fatigue seemed to get the better of them and fell asleep. The Commission will be hoping stakeholders react just as peacefully when its proposals are released this autumn.

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