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The Circular Economy is (Slowly) Coming to Europe

Words by Leon Kaye

Despite the increase in recycling programs, new technologies turning trash into energy, growing consumer awareness about electronic waste and more efforts made to compost, trash is still a mounting problem. This is particularly true in Europe, where mandates to reduce landfill waste have not stopped residents from pitching the majority of their garbage. Now the European Commission is trying to nudge the economic bloc into adopting opt a more circular economy.

To that end, late last week the EC last week adopted a framework to ramp up waste diversion and recycling efforts in its member states. Moving past the current nations’ obligations to divert half of their trash from landfills by 2020, these proposals are far more aggressive. By 2030, Europeans will be asked to recycle 70 percent of municipal waste and 80 percent of packaging waste. The EC also recommends a total ban on the burial of recyclables in landfills by 2025 and suggests new proposals for slashing marine waste at sea and food waste on land.

To score a buy-in from the bevy of states that together form the world’s largest economy but at the same time comprise a fickle group, the EC is positioning this proposal as one centered on economic growth.

According to the EC, this “circular economy package” is not just about bans and reductions, but also about creating wealth. The authors of this framework suggest an ambitious zero-waste program could generate up to 580,000 jobs, would save European industry €630 billion annually (US$856 billion) and prevent the loss of valuable materials that would otherwise take up space in municipal dumps. The framework also promises additional economic benefits, an example being a steady increase in GDP due to the continued boost in resource productivity.

So how will this shift to a zero-waste economy work? For now the EC is supporting this circular economic plan with more suggested initiatives. Among them include a “green employment” initiative; a “green action plan” for small- and medium-sized enterprises; and plan to ensure the building and construction industries are greener. Eventually these frameworks will end up as proposed legislation to be passed in Brussels.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Not only are EC member states sure to squabble over how to get this done, but also the drive to eliminate waste will require close engagement of various stakeholder groups. Even more businesses will have to agree to a zero-waste agenda for this to succeed at the industry level — and the big elephant in the room of course, will be consumers, who have become accustomed to cheap disposable goods. The EC claims consumer education and new services will be a large part of any such plan — and they will have to be. This is not just about recycling: Product designers and engineers will have to rethink how to “design out” waste at the conceptual stage if, says the EC, products will be “easier to maintain, repair, upgrade, manufacture or recycle.” The fact so many consumer goods, such as electronics, are made to have a short lifespan and end up being pitched is a large factor in this “disposable society” in which we live.

Posturing aside, something has to be done. Europe is running out of landfill space, and projects such as waste-to-energy plants and textile recycling by retailers may plug a few gaps but pose their own challenges and controversies. Mandates and regulations are the easy tasks — the real work will be convincing people how they can benefit from changing the way we have lived — the way to which most of us on both sides of the Atlantic have been accustomed for the last half-century.

Image credit: Wikipedia (Cezary p)

Leon Kaye currently lives in the United Arab Emirates, where he works for the Abu Dhabi office of APCO, a communications consultancy. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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