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Recycling as an aspiration

The European Commissioner for the Environment tells Christine Ottery the UK needs to tackle landfill and sets out his vision

It is refreshing to encounter a senior politician who openly expresses his aspirations for the environment and resource efficiency in the media and on social media such as Twitter.

Janez Potocnik is a farmer’s son from Kropa, Slovenia, who believes that “we live in a fragile world and we have to use all the tools at our disposal to protect it”.

We cannot meet in person because of the European environment commissioner’s packed schedule. But in keeping with his 21st century outlook, our email exchange reveals a forthright and direct manner of tackling questions of EU and UK policy. Potocnik’s main area of concern within the waste industry is landfill. Last September, he supported a EU-wide ban on landfill by 2020.

He tells MRW he is concerned that the UK is lagging behind other member states. We landfill 49% of our waste, which is above the EU average. Potocnik sees this landfill problem as a priority for the UK to tackle.

EU waste legislative targets are due to be reviewed in 2014. The commissioner says that one of the big challenges of setting targets is the significant differences between attitudes to landfilling among member states. While six countries are sending almost zero waste to landfill, “some are still landfilling between 75% and 90% of their waste”, he says.

So how could the UK and others achieve Potocnik’s vision of getting rid of landfill?

He says: “There is no doubt that this aspirational target - eliminating landfilling by 2020 - is ambitious, but let’s not forget that six member states have already met it as they are landfilling less than 5% of the waste they generate.”

He suggests learning from those countries that have been successful in reducing landfill almost to nothing.

“Most of them got there by using fiscal policy to gradually raise the cost of landfilling; some of them went so far as to ban landfills, and some are now considering bans on the incineration of certain types of waste,” he says.

“I would welcome such bans in the medium term in all member states, particularly for reusable, recyclable/compostable waste streams. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but there should be no doubt about the direction we need to take.”   

In response to UK waste industry concerns about energy-from-waste overcapacity, if we were to follow the same route to reducing landfill as countries such as Norway and Sweden, he says: “There is no time like the present to invest in prevention, reuse and recycling in order to avoid any potential overcapacity problems in the future.”

But he thinks this is unlikely because only 12% of UK municipal waste was incinerated in 2010.

Potocnik refuses to be drawn into an opinion on the perennially controversial hot topic of commingling, and whether the UK has transposed the revised Waste Framework Directive (WFD) correctly. His staff are currently assessing the UK national measure which transposes the WFD, so he says it is too early to give an opinion. The outcome of the assessment can be expected in the first quarter of this year.

The waste hierarchy, with prevention at its pinnacle, will be considered as part of the 2014 EU waste target review, which is already being prepared for with planned stakeholder consultation, says Potocnik.

The overarching aim of the review is to see how waste policy targets can match up to the ‘aspirational’ Resource Efficiency Roadmap. “The main orientation [of the review] is clear: the line is fixed in the Roadmap on Resource Efficiency,” says Potocnik.

He points out that the full implementation of existing waste legislation could bring an additional e42bn (£25bn) in turnover for the sector, and create an extra 400,000 jobs in the European recycling industry between now and 2020.

The commissioner says that to incentivise recycling and achieve resource efficiency, there needs to be a multidirectional approach to the challenges of resource scarcity. “Let’s not forget that the EU now imports six times more materials and resources than it exports, and we are completely dependent on sources outside Europe for some critical raw materials that are expected to become difficult to access,” he says.  

Potocnik tells MRW that “we need to create a framework for resource efficiency using all the means available”, including “creating economic conditions to encourage recycling, and not being afraid to use legislative measures such as legally binding targets and eco-design requirements”.

But he does not advocate allowing VAT differentials for products as a way to incentivise resource-efficient products, as suggested at a conference on green taxes hosted by the Environmental Services Association in December.

He believes the idea is good in principle, and could be a powerful tool for promoting resource efficient products, but it is “a rather blunt instrument” for capturing all the resources required to make products, and there is a risk tax reductions could be taken as a windfall by producers. He says: “Specific subsidies and taxes for resource-efficient and inefficient products would be more targeted and allow for more differentiation.”

This would also give investors the price signals they need to switch to a more resource-efficient economy, alongside other measures such as phasing out subsidies that go to environmentally harmful activities (read more on his views investment at MRW.co.uk/8641497.article).

Potocnik is also a proponent of green design - he has tweeted “Recycling should start when a product is made” - and thinks there are many ways to incentivise this. Examples include producer responsibility directives, product standards and providing information on environmental footprint.

But he says that EU policies should just be the baseline: “Many of the most successful initiatives are national and/or local policies that build on EU policies with further incentives that result in products that are more easily reusable or recyclable.”

CV Janez Potocnik

Went to University of Ljubljana to study economics, and continued to study there for his Master’s and his PhD, which was completed in 1993. He then worked as a researcher at the Institute of Economic Research in Ljubljana 1989-93.

From 1991 to 2004, he worked as an an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Ljubljana, where he lectured on statistics and economics.

In July 1994, he was appointed director of the Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development of the Republic of Slovenia, an independent government office - the director reports to the Slovenian president. This was the start of a prominent political career that included being head of the negotiating team for Slovenia joining the EU (1998), and ended up with Potocnik as the minister for European affairs from 2002.

Following his term as European commissioner for science and research (2004-09), when he was awarded two honorary degrees, from Imperial College London and Ghent University, he became commissioner for the environment in 2010.

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