Critical Thinking: The EU Circular Economy Package - achievable, ambitious or inadequate?

The much anticipated revised circular economy package released by the European Commission at the end of last year received widespread criticism for not being ambitious enough, but is that criticism justified? There was certainly a strange feeling of déjà vu as the European Parliament once again voiced its displeasure with the revised targets as taking a step back from the more ambitious targets introduced previously. The positive steps the package makes towards a circular economy should not be overlooked. 

A complete ban on landfilling separately collected waste and moves to develop a common policy for measuring waste and recycling rates have been largely welcomed industry and policy makers alike.

The package has however attracted criticism for rowing back from the more ambitious previous objectives initially proposed, notably reduced targets including; the decline from a total ban on landfilling, to a maximum of 10% of all waste.  According to Zero Waste Europe, landfill bans may be counterproductive in pursuit of a circular economy, citing the potential overcapacity of waste to energy plants, discouraging efforts on waste prevention, reuse or recycling.   Such concerns are no doubt underpinned by the reduction in recycling target for municipal waste from 70% to 65%; and the target for recycling packaging waste from 80% to 75%.

Criticism has been levelled at the proposals for food waste as being weak and defined targets to reduce food waste have been removed in their entirety. Given the purpose of the package is to drive better practices, targets need to be sufficiently challenging to promote improvement. The package has failed to listen to the industry and provide central financial support to the production of secondary materials.

As the circular economy package will apply equally across the European Union and targets introduced must be fitting for a wide spectrum of countries with different infrastructures and financial constraints, is the criticism fair bearing this in mind? Ultimate responsibility will lie with national governments to transpose these minimum targets. Countries with more advanced recycling practices are not restricted from continuing to challenge themselves through national rules that go above those contained within the package. Scotland for example has already made clear steps towards a circular economy and launched a consultation last summer proposing ways to support development.

How much can be improved by legislation alone? For the targets to be achieved it is essential that the philosophy of a circular economy is promoted through stakeholder engagement. Are younger generations being sufficiently engaged to the benefits it will bring, such as the financial sums that could be added to the economy and the jobs it will create. Is the UK effectively optimising key trends such as Instagram and Facebook to encourage good practices in a bottom up approach, or tailing happenings such as the Northern floods to push better practices.

Overall the package provides a positive starting point for a European wide policy. Whilst the European Parliament and Council's reach a decision as to whether they wish to endorse the package, and how the proposals develop, it is hoped that national governments will look for ways to drive practices and pioneer their own development with the support of the industry, rather than waiting for a package that fails to provide any radical proposals. 

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