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On 25th February 2015, the College of Commissioners has adopted the executive’s 2015 Work Programme, permanently abolishing the Circular Economy Package.

This was a set of six bills on municipal waste, packaging waste, landfill, end of life vehicles, marine litter, among others. It was proposed last June, in the last stage of Barroso’s term, with the aim of increasing recycling levels and tightening rules on incineration and landfill.

In particular, the Commission had stated it could create €600 billion net savings, two million jobs and deliver 1% GDP growth. Since resource-efficiency was included as one of the seven flagship initiatives in the Europe 2020 Strategy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, several NGOs had held high expectations about the process leading the European Commission to such a measure.

The first proposal, issued by the Commission on 2nd July 2014[1], contained a wide-ranging list of legally binding targets:

  • A 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030;
  • An 80% recycling target for packaging by 2030;
  • A ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.

Further goals were defined as merely “aspirational”, thus not legally enforceable:

  • A phase out of landfilling of all recoverable waste by 2030;
  • A 30% reduction of waste by 2025;
  • A 30% fall in marine litter by 2020.

Since its approval, however, the package has been the target of harsh criticisms, particularly by BusinessEurope, the EU employers’ organisation, representing European companies. This organisation rejected the idea of having legally binding targets at all, and further argued that the established figures would be nearly impossible to achieve, given the current status of European waste management.

Due to the change of leadership at the Commission, the proposal was temporarily shelved.

The new President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, came to power on 1st November 2014, and gave his First Vice President Frans Timmermans the task of discussing with the European Parliament and the Council, within the first three months of the mandate, the list of pending proposals from Barroso’s mandate (about 130 pieces of legislation) and see whether it was still advisable to pursue them. The list of legislations to be ditched was leaked one week before the official announcement, and the Circular Economy package appeared in the list.


BusinessEurope restarted pushing the Commission to withdraw the Circular Economy package, arguing that such issues should be regulated under an economic piece of legislation, rather than taking purely an environmental perspective[2]. In particular, BusinessEurope representatives voiced concerns over the binding nature of certain rules.

The debate became heated, with 20 non-profit groups and organisations signing a letter with a point-by-point rebuttal of the BusinessEurope statement, advocating against the “narrow assertion” that business competitiveness would be hampered by the package, stating “We believe, as do a vast number of progressive companies, that the only way for European industry to be competitive is to innovate with the limits of a low carbon and resource efficient economy, and to embrace strong social, labour, consumer and environmental protection measures”.

This was followed by further protest actions by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, eleven national environmental ministers. Despite all these, and further concerns by European Parliament President Martin Schulz and a letter signed by ten countries[3], on 16th December 2014 Timmermans announced MEPs that the Circular Economy package would be ditched, to be replaced with more ambitious legislation in 2015.

According to EurActive, one MEP even shouted “shame” at Timmermans when he confirmed the decision. Timmermans replied the new proposal would come in 2015. “We will do this very quickly because we want the Circular Economy … we want to put something on the table that is more ambitious”[4].

As underlined by Italy’s Environment Minister Gianluca Galletti, this decision is completely at odds with the EU’s position at the UN: Galletti had just returned from the Lima Climate Change Conference, in which some progress was made towards a new global Climate Action. At the end of 2015, leaders will gather in Paris to find a final agreement: the withdrawal of this package is thus seen as an obstacle on the road to Paris.

In mid-January, the European Parliament tried once last time to save the Circular Economy package, through a series of resolutions. However, MEPs were not able to find a political agreement and ended up backing individual resolutions, all aiming at saving individual environmental bills, and thus failing to secure a majority. True, this failure does not mean a backing of the Commission’s decision, but it is still a sign of weakness and lack of ability to join forces for a common goal.

In the meantime, environmental advocates have grown suspicious on the matter, pointing the finger at BusinessEurope’s role in shaping Timmermans’s decision and demanding the Commission to provide analyses that prove how the Circular Economy package was doomed to fail. No such evidence has been released yet, despite the reliance on official channels to ask for the disclosure: namely the EU’s Access to Documents regulation, which sets a 30-day deadline for the Commission’s response, and the transparency obligations under the Aarhus Convention.

While we were waiting for the reports to be disclosed, the Commission’s 2015 Work Programme was approved, and a formal decision was made to withdraw the Circular Economy package, along with 72 further laws among those under Timmermans’s scrutiny. Allegedly, an improved version of the package will be resubmitted “later this year”.

This is a great disappointment for all those organisations that are actively investing to achieve a “zero waste” economy. Geonardo is also doing its best to keep the Circular Economy well and alive. We are currently partner in the FP7 project “PlasCarb – Turning waste into a resource through innovative technologies, processes and services”, coordinated by the Centre for Process Innovation. We remain firmly convinced of the necessity of a change from a linear model of “take-make-consume-dispose”, to a real circular approach, where resources are reutilized more times, and the amount of waste is minimized. PlasCarb is aiming exactly at creating a new technology that will allow value to be recovered from waste food. We are now sending out the project’s first newsletter: subscribe on our website to learn more about the project and have further information on these issues, or click here to view it online.

Fortunately, Horizon 2020 can help supporting European organisations and companies committed to the concept of Circular Economy[5], and hopefully it will continue to do so in the future.

 

[5] Read the Annex to the Circular Economy Package: “How can Horizon 2020 contribute to the Circular Economy?” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:50edd1fd-01ec-11e4-831f-01aa75ed71a1.0001.01/DOC_2&format=PDF

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