Circular economy about more than increasing recycling rates

The circular economy is a huge economic opportunity, but Europe's transition will require more than just increasing recycling rates, says Mark Demesmaeker.

Mark Demesmaeker | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Mark Demesmaeker

08 Jul 2016

The EU largely depends on the import of raw materials, a significant portion of these natural resources are rapidly depleting, yet we continue to waste considerable amounts of these valuable resources. Clearly, a 'business as usual' scenario is not an option. 

Therefore, a key challenge will be to reclaim as many resources as possible within the EU. Transitioning to a circular economy is an economic necessity: it is essential for the EU's long-term competitiveness and offers important opportunities for local job creation.

An important and crucial step to reclaiming valuable resources within the EU is to increase our recycling capacity and performance, enhance reuse and repair and extend the lifetime of products. This is where the legislative package on waste legislation comes into the picture. We should make optimal use of the waste legislation, precisely because of its economic importance.


I therefore strongly support a return to the ambition levels of the original European Commission proposals from 2014 in terms of targets.

In addition, I would like to emphasise the need for a single method for calculating our recycling rates: currently four different methods are used in the EU, which makes it impossible to genuinely compare results between member states. One of the key goals of the review is to obtain a clear and accurate insight on what is actually being recycled.

And, we should do everything possible to keep all member states on board. Allowing five years of additional time (until 2035) for a group of member states does not make any economic sense. How can we justify the continued waste of valuable resources for another 20 years?

Also, such measures are unnecessary. The Commission has acknowledged that the EU has all the required instruments at its disposal to achieve its targets. 

Instead of allowing more time, we should reinforce our efforts to enable member states to increase their recycling capacities in the short-term, by using the abundance of expertise available through exchanging best practices, peer review, twinning, and other initiatives.

Looking back at the track record of Flanders, the nation I represent in the European Parliament, I am confident that a lot can achieved in 20 years, provided the political will to succeed is present.

Having said that, we have to acknowledge that optimising our recycling rates alone will not be enough to make our economy circular. 

Waste management should be transformed into sustainable material management. It is time for a major paradigm shift: many of us still consider waste as something to get rid of. We genuinely need to consider waste as a valuable resource, trash is cash.

We also need to tackle the more fundamental problem upfront by reducing the generation of waste in the first place.

In this regard, the ongoing revision of our waste legislation is an enormous opportunity. My amendments focus, inter alia, on the need to decouple waste generation from economic growth and the incentivising of smart and innovative business models, based on resource efficiency and life-cycle assessments.

We also need to develop new production models (where rethinking product design is essential; extended producer responsibility is an important driver here). 

We should equally enhance new consumption models which take into account an efficient use of resources and where consumers increasingly evolve to service users. A recent report entitled, "The Growth Within", produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, offers interesting perspectives in this regard. 

We also need diligent application of the waste hierarchy, with clear economic incentives to promote the uptake of secondary raw materials. Equally, we need to promote and support the reuse of and lifetime extension of products.

In addition, I would like to elaborate on the importance of reuse and repair and can refer to the Flemish best practice of "kringwinkels" (circular reuse shops). Kringwinkels have set a reuse target of five kilos per capita by 2015, which will increase to seven kilos by 2022. This clearly shows the positive effect of quantitative targets, also on local job creation.

In order to seize these opportunities, it is necessary to separate 'reuse' and 'preparation for reuse' from the recycling targets. Reuse and preparation for reuse should instead be addressed by quantitative targets at member state level. 

While acknowledging the different status of reuse versus preparation for reuse (non-waste versus waste), it is obvious that both actions are intrinsically connected and work towards the same goal, notably to encourage and increase reuse.

In the area of packaging, having a combined target of 'preparation for reuse and recycling' makes even less sense, because of a clear distinction between single use packaging and reusable packaging.

A combined target could potentially lead to artificially high results and divert attention away from recycling. I strongly believe the target should focus instead on recycling and do not see a clear added value of proposing a mandatory EU reuse target for packaging.

For commercial and industrial packaging, reusable packaging is already spontaneously trending, based on market demand and cost-efficiency. For household packaging however, a mandatory reuse target would probably entail an obligatory deposit refund scheme: a choice I believe should be left to the member states. 

What seems more essential to me is that the issue of efficient use of resources through improved design is addressed by updating the essential requirements for packaging.

To conclude: Flanders, the nation I represent, is a top performer in material management and has pioneered the circular economy. The Flemish government has integrated the transition to a circular economy as a priority in its "Vision 2050". Based on those best practices, I have put forward some constructive ideas which I believe and hope can contribute to strengthening the waste legislation and hastening the transition to a genuine circular economy.


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