At the start of July, the European Commission adopted the circular economy package detailed in Towards a Circular Economy: a Zero Waste Programme for Europe.
This included a review of waste policy and legislation, as required under the existing Waste Framework Directive, which has resulted in proposals for:
- an increase in the recycling and preparing for reuse of municipal waste to 70% by 2030;
- an increase in the recycling and preparing for reuse of packaging waste to 80% by 2030;
- landfill bans for recyclable materials by 2025, including plastic, paper, metals, glass and biowaste.
What is interesting about the proposals is not so much the targets themselves – it is the emphasis placed by the Commission on the contribution that increased reuse and recycling can make to the economy rather than environmental protection.
It is the first time that the value of waste to the economy has been placed so unashamedly centre stage in a document focused on waste policy. This is the result of a significant shift in emphasis based on retention of value within the economy and driven by the increasing cost and scarcity of key raw materials.
The Commission said that the aim of its most recent waste policy is to help shape Europe into a circular economy, a phrase little known a few years ago but now a key buzzword within the industry and politics. It articulates a desire shift towards increased recycling to retain the value of recyclable materials within the economy and minimise the use of natural resources, as well as what the Commission describes as the ‘reinjection’ into the EU economy of secondary raw materials which in turn reduce dependence on raw material imports.
This is about securing a framework in which EU manufacturing can be competitive on the global stage, with increased recycling and extended producer responsibility feeding back the raw materials necessary to manufacture more products without the need to rely on natural resources.
The UK continues to lag behind many other European economies in terms of recycling rates, with around 43% of waste in England being recycled in 2012-13, compared with 63% in Austria and 62% in Germany. We also need to think more in terms of the circular economy, raw materials and the bottom line for UK plc if we are going to become better engaged as a recycling society.
No doubt we all recall the debate about the frequency of waste collections and whether we should charge for non-recyclable waste. During this, it became apparent that neither the public nor politicians put any real stock in the environmental protection arguments underpinning the debate on how we collect our waste.
Even more recently, in the context of the commingling debacle, it did not seem that the Government was interested in increased recycling as a means to boost the economy and create a more sustainable one. But the recent waste policy review and circular economy package are a clear signal that it is about time this was viewed as such
As the UK moves to implement segregated waste collections for paper, plastic, glass and metal from 1 January 2015, perhaps the time is right to reconsider how the message is communicated to the public and other stakeholders.
The economy has been centre stage for years, and the real difference that increased recycling and the move to a circular economy could make to UK competitiveness could prove to be a more difficult notion for the public to shrug off than the usual ‘it’s better for the environment’ line that has been adopted in the past.
Fiona Ross is an Associate at Pinsent Masons