Reducing bottlenecks for a circular economy transition
New waste legislation rules do not go far enough, writes Sirpa Pietikäinen.
Sirpa Pietikäinen | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual
The environmental implementation review was adopted by the Commission as a new tool for identifying bottlenecks in the implementation of the EU’s extensive environmental legislation. A much larger problem is the level of implementation, which varies vastly between member states.
At an even higher level, there is the problem that current EU environmental legislation is insufficient. The targets required and actions should be determined through science-based back-casting.
We know where we have to be. From there, we must trace backwards the steps that will get us there.
The international community has agreed to establish independent bodies to guide these decisions with expert opinions. It is these bodies that we should turn to whenever there is doubt about the required level of ambition.
Additionally, political decisions are needed on the principles that will apply to legislation. The precautionary principle is a good example.
For chemical legislation, there needs to be enough proof that a substance will not harm humans or plants before new chemicals can be brought onto the market. This means taking into account the long-term, subtle, highly-improbable risks, such as is the case with endocrine disruptors, rather than having to subsequently recall chemicals once their toxicity is discovered in use.
There is consensus that in the future, the scope of the environmental implementation review should be broadened. For example, it should include industrial emissions, energy efficiency measures and chemicals, as well as environment-related measures linked to fisheries. Some of these represent bottlenecks to the circular economy transition.
The waste legislation, for example, will not set high enough targets. It will also fail to establish a waste hierarchy that would act as a strong catalyst for the move towards a circular economy. A fully-established hierarchy would have several distinct levels. First, by using modular design and development where relevant, it should be possible to upgrade products.
You shouldn’t have to switch mobile phones when a new application is released - you should be able to enhance your existing phone. Once this is no longer possible, the aim should be to reuse the product as it is. This is already being done in homes or gardens, where pellets are being used to make coffee tables.
When a product can finally no longer be used and becomes waste, it is essential to have sufficient sorting to capture resources for alternative uses. It is not enough to sort different types of materials, plastic and glass for example.
Sorting of different qualities of materials must be developed. The aim should be to preserve high quality materials and enable them to retain the same value as before. The incentivised recycling of PET-bottles, which are reused to make more PET-bottles, is a great example.
The sorting of mixed household waste could be made more efficient through the use of optical sorting. This would help answer some of the questions consumers have when they try to recycle:
Where does the empty sheet of paracetamol go, which is mostly plastic but has a thin aluminium sheet on one side; what to do with a paper envelope with a plastic window on it? Only at the very end of this process, would any remaining waste - less than one per cent - be incinerated.
Incentives work to a certain extent. After that, legislation is needed to give further impetus to the transition process. Current incentives are counter-productive. Europe is supporting the construction of more waste incinerators, even in places where there is over-capacity.
The level and focus of European investments in research and innovation, including through Horizon 2020, will influence Europe’s future to a circular economy.
The European Commission must monitor the implementation of environmental legislation more stringently. Member states should not be allowed to continue damaging the environment and disregarding existing legislation.
The EU’s target of ‘halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services’ by 2020 is a sad and telling example. Assessments show that 60 per cent of species and 77 per cent of habitats have an unfavourable conservation status. We are far from being where we know we need to be.
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