How trash-to-treasure can square Europe’s economic circle

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It used to be that the only ones preaching about recycling and reuse were dedicated environmentalists, but now captains of industry, civil servants and statesmen believe in a world without waste. The circular economy, they say, is the future, and it can save our planet.

A restorative industrial system that finds treasures in trash should be a win-win arrangement for the European Union as it bids to cut down on waste and boost its sluggish economy. However, the European Commission’s action plan on the circular economy is still only just kicking in.

In a report published just over a year after it unveiled its Circular Economy Package (CEP) of waste and recycling laws, the Commission laid out its progress so far, including the first steps towards legislation on the burning of waste for energy, and its plans to work with the European Investment Bank to raise financial backing for projects. The report covers a sprawling set of issues, and many of them may seem unrelated, but it shows how wide ranging the circular economy concept is.

The good news, the Commission says, is that Europe’s circular economy is making headway. “We are closing the loop of design, production, consumption, and waste management, thereby creating a green, circular and competitive Europe” Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said.

The December 2015 Circular Economy Package included an array of legislative proposals which have been slowly moving through the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. With its six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment, the package aims to promote growth decoupled from the ever more voracious consumption of resources. In a world of mainly finite resources and rapid population growth, it promotes the four Rs of the circular economy: remanufacturing, repair, reuse, and recycling.

The most striking new element in the January announcement was a communication on the role of waste-to-energy processes, which “will maximise the benefits of this small but innovative part of the national energy mix,” the Commission said. It reaffirmed the waste hierarchy, with prevention, reuse and recycling seen as better options in terms of resource savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But its guidance puts more emphasis on processes like anaerobic digestion of biodegradable waste, where material recycling is combined with energy recovery, and says waste incineration must be redefined to ensure that increases in recycling and reuse are not hampered.

The measure met with criticism from lobbies. Campaigning group Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) complained that the Commission did not include a binding call to phase out subsidies for waste-to-energy, and called on MEPs and national governments to fix this during the legislative process. “We cannot keep wasting our money and resources in subsidising waste-to-energy,” Ferran Rosa, ZWE’s Policy Officer said.

Ferdinand Kleppmann, president of the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants (CEWEP) said “the mountain brought forth a mouse,” adding that, “the resulted text has more basis in political considerations rather than in facts and science.” And the European Suppliers of Waste-to-Energy Technology (ESWET), a trade body, notes that the Commission’s own research shows an increasing amount of feedstock for energy recovery, which is likely to increase support for “the necessary massive diversion from landfill.”

Another new measure in the package is a proposal to add exemptions to rules on use of certain hazardous parts in electrical and electronic equipment beyond the 2019 expiry date of the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. This proposal closes a technical proposal to improve reselling and repair of medical devices while extending the lifetime of existing equipment. It is expected to prevent more than 3000 tonnes of hazardous waste per year and lower EU healthcare costs by an estimated €170 million by allowing hospitals to buy and sell used medical devices after July 2019.

Early signs from the European Parliament were that this is indeed viewed as a technical proposal with little room for political steering: no political group put themselves forward for leading the Parliament’s review of the Commission’s proposal resulting in newly-appointed Environment Committee Chair Adina-Ioana Valean automatically being given the rapporteurship.

The Commission also outlined its plans for other circular economy issues this year, from measures to “improve the economics, quality and low rate of plastic recycling and reuse,” to a legislative proposal setting minimum requirements for reused water for irrigation and aquifer recharge. Other actions include: the creation of an EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste (estimated at 88 million tonnes a year, costing about €143 billion); legislative proposals to help create a market for fertilisers made from secondary raw materials; and a €650 million investment in 2016 and 2017 to finance research circular economy projects as part of the Horizon 2020 programme.

Unlike some EU proposals, the circular economy action plan is riding a wave. The concept of building an economy without waste makes business sense. In a circular economy, the goal for durable components, such as metals and most plastics, is to reuse or upgrade them for other applications through as many cycles as possible. Recycling and reusing reduces the emissions that come from extracting and transporting virgin raw materials. The circular economy eradicates waste not just from manufacturing processes, as lean management aspires to do, but systematically, throughout the life cycles and uses of products and their components.

The circular economy is backed by hefty research. The World Bank predicts that on current trends, solid waste will double between now and 2025 to 6.5 million tonnes every day. But it also estimates that over the next 10 years, some €6 trillion will be invested in clean technologies in developing countries. That ties in with forecasts from the World Economic Forum (WEF) that the circular economy will contribute $1 trillion per annum globally by 2025. The WEF – in a report with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – also said a shift in reusing, remanufacturing and recycling products could lead to more than half a million new jobs in Europe’s recycling industry.

Some of the world’s largest companies have embraced circular practices. French energy giant Veolia says it already represents 20% of its turnover. The car industry says that giving components a new life means using 88% less water and 90% less chemicals, reducing overall waste by an impressive 70%. Carmaker General Motors says reusing 2.5 million tonnes of its recycled waste means taking out 10 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions. Caterpillar, the heavy machinery manufacturer, has an entire operation − Cat Reman – dedicated to recovering engine parts.

The Commission’s circular economy proposals are diverse, and in some ways, they are artificially linked. But by bringing them together under an umbrella heading, it has branded a technical policy that can perhaps capture the imagination better than other concepts like sustainability and resource efficiency.

At a time of uncertainty, when faith in the EU is being questioned, people can at least relate to the Commission’s vision of an industrial system that offers growth without exhausting natural resources. They can support a circular economy where materials are reused and remanufactured as standard, products last longer, and waste is turned into energy. It may be at an early stage, but by embracing the concept of using and reusing, rather than using up, the Commission may have found a cause that truly engages Europeans.

Words Leo Cendrowicz and Lawrie McLaren
Photo CC/Alan Levine

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