Toward a Zero-Waste EU?

Europe can move towards an economy that produces almost no waste, says the European Commission. It has presented a policy package that aims to start Europe moving towards a “circular economy”.

This differs from conventional linear economic models where most value that is created has a finite lifespan, at the end of which it is discarded or destroyed. The circular economy emphasises achieving virtually no waste – products, materials, and other forms of value are reused or recycled. The policy package consists of a proposal for a Directive reviewing waste targets; a Communication on the circular economy; a Communication on resource efficiency opportunities in building; a Green Employment Initiative; and a Green Action Plan for SMEs.

The Legislative Proposal: Increased Waste targets

According to the Commission, waste policies and targets are a key driver for shifting to a circular economy. Turning waste into a resource is an essential part of increasing resource efficiency.  In this context, the Commission has presented a proposal for a Directive, which sets out new targets on waste recycling with a 2030 horizon, simplifies the legislation and ensures a better implementation of the waste legislation by the Member States. The proposed Directive reviews the waste management targets of three Directives

Key changes with regard to Directive 2008/98/EC on waste are the following:
• Member States are requested to take appropriate waste prevention measures and reduce food waste by at least 30% between January 2017 and December 2025
• By 1st January at the latest, recycling and preparing for re-use of municipal waste should be increased to a minimum of 70% by weight
• An early warning system should be established. According to the Commission, this system should anticipate difficulties of Member States to achieve targets and to advise and assist them in getting on tracks 
Regarding Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging wastes, the main changes are:
• A minimum of 60% by weight of all packaging waste should be prepared for re-use and recycled by 2020, 70% by 2025 and 80% by 2030
• The following minimum targets for preparing re-use and recycling should be met by 2020 for each of the following material contained in packaging waste: 45% of plastic, 50% of wood, 70% of ferrous metal, 70% of aluminium, 70% of glass and 85% of paper and cardboard; by 2025, this should reach 60% of plastic, 65% of wood, 80% of ferrous metal, 80% of aluminium, 80% of glass and 90% of paper and cardboard; by 2030 this should reach 80% of wood, 90% of ferrous metal, 90% of aluminium and 90% of glass
• The Directive also provides provisions on an early warning system
Regarding Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste, the key changes are the following:
• Landfilling of recyclable waste (including plastics, paper, metals, glass and biodegradable waste) should be banned by 2025
• Landfilling of non-hazardous waste in a given year which exceed 25% of the total amount of municipal waste generated in the previous year should be banned
• The Directive also provides provisions on an early warning system

The Communication on a Circular Economy

The Communication “Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme in Europe” sets out the Commission’s approach to the circular economy. It explains how innovation, new business models, eco-design and industrial symbiosis can move towards a zero-waste economy and society.

In order to develop this circular economy, the Communication sets out a number of actions. The Commission believes these actions should focus on the following issues:

Supporting Design and Innovation

The circular economy approach requires products to be redesigned to be used longer, repaired, upgraded, remanufactured and recycled. In this context, the Commission proposes: (a) to promote large-scale innovation projects and to foster skills development and support the market application of innovative solutions; (b) to establish a reinforced partnership to support research and innovation; (c) to facilitate the development of more circular models for products and services; and (d) to encourage the cascading principle in the sustainable use of biomass.

Unlocking Investment

The Commission aims to encourage investment in circular economy innovation and address barriers to mobilising more private financing for resource efficiency. The Commission therefore proposes: (a) to develop methodologies for ‘resource stress tests’ for companies and to explore the potential of the bonds market to channel additional finance for resource efficiency projects; (b) to clarify the sustainability responsibilities of financial institutions; and (c) to further integrate circular economy priorities into EU funding and to encourage Member States to use available EU funding in programmes and projects on the circular economy.

Supporting Business

Taking into account the fact that business and consumers remain the key actors in the transition to a more circular economy, the Commission will: (a) set out the way to apply the use of environmental impact measurement in products and process design; (b) support job creation and skills development through enhanced policy cooperation; and (c) support best practices exchanges at the international level.

Simplifying Waste Legislation

In order to improve the implementation of waste legislation and to reduce current disparities among Member States, the Commission wants to: (a) address overlaps amongst waste targets and align definitions; (b) simplify reporting obligation for Member States; (c) allow Member States to exempt SMEs or undertaking collecting and/or transporting very small quantities of non-hazardous waste from the general permit or registration requirements under the waste framework Directive; (d) introduce annual reporting through a single entry point for all waste data; and (e) promote direct investment in waste management.

Tackling Specific Waste Management

In order to address particular waste challenges related to significant loss of resources or environmental impacts, the Commission aims to: (a) propose an aspirational target of reducing marine litter by 30% by 2020; (b) develop a common EU assessment framework for the environmental performance of buildings (see section 3); (c) propose that plastics are banned from landfilling by 2025; and (d) develop a policy framework on phosphorus to enhance its recycling.

Resource efficiency targets

According to the Communication, a candidate for a resource productivity target would be measured by GDP relative to Raw Material Consumption. This target should not be binding and it should be developed in the context of the review of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

The Communication on the Environmental Impact of Buildings

Resource efficiency is not limited to municipal waste; it also involves the construction and use of buildings, which is why the Commission has presented a Communication on resource efficiency opportunities in the building sector. The objective of the Commission is to reduce the environmental impacts of new and renovated buildings by increasing resource efficiency and improving the information available about the environmental performance of buildings.

The Commission believes that there is in the building sector a lack of reliable, comparable and affordable data on which EU public and private operator can analyse and benchmark the environmental performance of buildings. The Communication aims at addressing this information deficit by proposing the setting out of a framework of indicators that should be used for the assessment of the environmental performance of buildings. These indicators should address the following aspects:
• Total energy use
• Material use and the embodied environmental impacts
• Durability of construction products
• Design for deconstruction
• Management of construction as well as demolition waste
• Recycled content in construction materials
• Recyclability and reusability of construction materials and products
• Water used by buildings
• The use intensity of buildings
• Indoor comfort

Two Action Plans: Green Employment and Boosting Green SMEs

In order to develop an integrated approach towards green growth and employment, the Commission has presented a Green Employment Initiative and a Green Action Plan for SMEs. These would, according to the Commission, coordinate targeted policy responses and tools to ensure that the employment and environmental agendas converge and contribute to reaching the objective of Europe 2020.

Regarding the transition toward a green, low carbon, energy and resource-efficient economy, the focus should be, according to the Green Employment Initiative, put on the anticipation and establishment of adequate skills policies to support workers in coping structural changes, the securing of labour market transition and the strengthening of governance and partnership-based initiatives. An integrated approach towards supporting employment in the economy by setting out policy actions should be taken at European and national levels.

These actions should include bridging skills and knowledge gaps, anticipating sectoral changes, supporting job creation through shifting taxation away from labour, increasing transparency and data quality to improve monitoring and promoting social dialogue.

With the Green Action Plan for SMEs, the Commission aims at contributing to the re-industrialisation of Europe by enhancing SMEs competitiveness and supporting green business developments. It builds on the Eco-Innovation Action Plan (EcoAP) which provides directions for eco-innovation policy and funding. According to the Commission, the Action Plan focuses on European level actions which are designed to fit in with and reinforce existing green initiatives to support SMEs at national and regional level in setting out a series of objectives and action that will be implemented.

These actions should include the improvement of resource efficiency of European SMEs, the support of green entrepreneurship, the exploitation of the opportunities of greener values chain the facilitation of the access to the market for green SMEs.

Next Steps

The four non-legislative Communications have been sent to the European Parliament and to the Council, which may decide to formally respond. The proposed Directive will follow the ordinary legislative procedure.