Preventing Waste. Recycling isn’t enough for a Circular Economy

preventing_waste_picPublished by:  Friends of the Earth Europe, February 2015

By: Rachel Tansey

Initial research and drafting:  Joseph Zacune

With thanks for comments and input to: Ariadna Rodrigo, Julian Kirby, John Hyland, Keith James and Lasse Brand

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The many social, environmental and economic benefits that would result from robust resource policies have been recognised by both the European Union (EU) and the governments of its member states. For example, by boosting re-use and repair of products, jobs are created while the impacts from mineral and metal extraction, incineration and landfill are avoided. But ambitions for encouraging re-use and repair, and the broader vision of a more resource-efficient and lower-consuming Europe, appear to be at risk of being abandoned by policy-makers. The European Commission’s proposed 2015 work plan, published in December 2014, revealed that the Circular Economy Package – intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill – would be binned. This was despite the Package having support in the European Parliament and European Council. Also, by the Commission’s own analysis, the Package is expected to create more than 180,000 direct European jobs by 2030 and avoid 62 million tonnes CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases, with the full implementation of existing EU waste legislation expected to save 72 billion a year. Moreover, moving towards the objectives of the Resource Efficiency Roadmap (going beyond implementation of existing legislation) could help to create 526,000 jobs compared to 2008 and an additional turnover of 55 billion. The uncertainty and delay created by scrapping the Circular Economy Package is completely at odds with the EU’s commitment to creating a sustainable economy.
First Vice-President Frans Timmermans has promised Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that the Commission will make a new, more ambitious proposal in 2015. It is absolutely vital that the Juncker Commission be held to account on this, and that the scrapping and re-tabling of the Circular Economy Package is not used to weaken and remove important aspects at the bidding of backward-looking business lobby groups – but contrary to the needs of progressive businesses, people and planet.
In Europe, we do not accord sufficient value to the resources we consume. Over 50% of municipal waste continues to be landfilled and incinerated, calculated as equivalent to throwing away over ¤5 billion per year. The objective of European waste legislation, legally established in the 2008 Waste Framework Directive, is to drive countries towards waste prevention, re-use and recycling – the top of the waste hierarchy – but the evidence shows incineration and landfill remain the norm across Europe.
We can change this situation, but scrapping waste and resource policy is not the way to do so. Not only should the Circular Economy Package not have been binned, it should have been strengthened and made central to other areas of policy-making, particularly economic policies. To scrap it moves us backwards, panders to narrow and regressive business interests and severely damages Europe’s prospects for truly sustainable economic recovery. Furthermore, it is vital that the EU does not focus solely on waste, but on resource consumption as a whole, as Europe is still one of the highest consuming continents on the globe, with a material footprint of 21 tonnes per capita per year. Reducing waste, and dealing with it in a more socially and environmentally sustainable way, is very important, but better use of resources requires a more comprehensive approach. Waste is an output of our socio-economic system. Even if we recycle 100% of a particular material, the prevailing norm of high and growing consumption of goods in Europe means that demand for virgin resources as an input remains high. For example, despite high rates of aluminium recycling (62% to 95%), our demand is so great that it cannot be met by recycled aluminium only (e.g. recycled aluminium supplied only 35% of consumption in Europe in 2008), creating a continuous demand for the virgin resource.
Europe cannot face the challenges of a resource-constrained world unless waste legislation becomes part of a wider strategy to reduce resource use. Resource prices have sky-rocketed since the turn of the 21st century, increasing 147% in its first decade. Global middle classes are growing. The world is facing ever higher demand for the same finite quantity of natural resources, creating greater competition. Moving towards a circular economy is a very important step towards addressing this challenge, but circularity does not in itself deal with the fact that we are, collectively, living beyond our planetary boundaries. This has irreversible negative consequences for both planet and people, as our ecosystem services are stretched beyond their capacity to renew themselves – biodiversity loss, soil erosion, climate change and resource degradation are all part of this picture.
Creating a more circular economy is therefore not enough. Europeans still consume too much, more than our share of the Earth’s resources. We have been some of the biggest consumers for centuries, disproportionately contributing to the fact that humanity as a whole is breaching planetary boundaries. Every year, we pass into ecological deficit earlier; in 2014, the date that humanity overshot the capacity of the planet to provide renewable resources and CO2 sequestration was August 19th. Another striking illustration is the estimate that if everyone in the world lived like an average EU citizen, we would need approximately two and half planet Earths to sustain our demands on nature. It is therefore both an imperative and an issue of justice that the EU introduces tools and policies that enable us a good quality of life while consuming less.
The good news is that communities dotted across Europe are starting to lead the much needed transformation. However, without changes to EU legislation these best-practices can only remain marginal and localised activities. This briefing documents a series of community- led projects that are helping Europe to reduce its resource use and waste, and makes policy recommendations that would enable these best-practices to become the norm. The case studies show that it is often local, under-resourced communities, guided by principles of sustainability, that are at the forefront of improving resource use and waste prevention. In some cases, local policy change can result from public pressure, as experienced in Capannori, Italy and Argentona in Catalonia. Elsewhere, repair cafe networks, zero waste municipalities, online re-use platforms, ‘borrowing shops’, clothing and tool libraries, and community composting are helping to fill the gap left by national and regional inaction.
Without adequate political and financial support however, these activities will remain a scattered minority, and often risk fizzling out due to a lack of resources or infrastructure. The EU and its member states have strong policy options at their disposal to encourage such projects, boosting economies in a way that has clear social and environmental co-benefits. The policy  recommendations in this briefing are designed to bridge the gap between Europe’s unfulfilled policy goals and the lower-consuming and resource-efficient Europe that the EU can – and must – become. The need for, or effectiveness of, many of the recommendations are illustrated and inspired by the accompanying case studies. By doing more to facilitate these kinds of sustainable and local initiatives, member states will see financial savings, job creation, less costly waste, and greater environmental protection.
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