EU requires clear commitments to achieve circular economy

Waste management is a tricky issue, but the EU must not unilaterally disregard landfilling in favour of incineration, writes Eleonora Evi.

By Eleonora Evi

Eleonora Evi (IT, Greens/EFA) was a signatory of Parliament’s resolution on Implementation of the EU Water Legislation

27 Nov 2014

In the coming weeks, parliament's committee on environment, public health and food safety will start to examine the commission's proposal on the revision of six different waste directives. The commission aims to update European legislation so that waste management can move towards the concept of a circular economy.

Though this is a relatively new concept within the framework of EU policies, in practice it is nothing new. In fact, grassroots organisations all around the world have been insisting for decades that removing materials from the waste cycle is a win-win strategy. Recycling materials otherwise directed to landfills or incinerators means ensuring better protection of our environment and a reduction in the exploitation of natural resources and economic gain, thanks to a cheaper cost of raw materials used in the production of goods.

"In total, in 2012, the 27 member states produced 2.5 billion tonnes of waste"

Between 2004 and 2012, according to Eurostat data, the total amount of waste generated per capita dropped to a timid 123 kg on average. In total, in 2012, the 27 member states produced 2.5 billion tonnes of waste, the result of activities such as quarrying and mining, manufacturing, building and demolition and energy production.

Urban waste, the production of which is directly linked to personal behaviour, accounts for just some 10 per cent of total waste. However, according to the commission's evaluation, it is one of the most difficult waste streams to deal with because it is different for everyone. Considerable resources have been invested in reducing the total amount of urban waste produced and increasing the amount that is recycled. However, the total amount of household waste in the EU went up about four per cent on average between 1994 and 2012. What is most worrying is that this trend affects even those countries with generally better environmental performances.

While identifying common causes to understand this phenomenon is not an easy task, some elements are worth taking a closer look at. The hierarchy established by the waste framework directive, for example, favours energy recovery over landfilling. The directive assumes that landfilling is the worst possible solution. However, if waste is collected separately – starting from organic matter – and if this is done well and everything is sent off to be recycled, it should not be taken for granted that incineration is better than landfilling.

While no waste reduction policy could ever depend on incineration, seeing as waste is necessary to feed the plant, landfilling can take full advantage of waste reduction as the dumping site would be designed to last longer. Furthermore, when organising household waste into categories, it becomes clear that paper and plastic are the only two materials with high heating power. While paper recycling is easy and economically convenient, this is not the case for plastic. On average, countries where incineration is the main form of waste management enjoy stable or increasing per capita production.

This is a complex issue that requires a more articulate analysis. Yet one thing is certain – if the EU is serious about implementing a circular economy aimed at achieving zero waste, it needs a clear commitment on industrial design. Rather than tackling the problem at the finish line, we must focus on prevention.

 

Read the most recent articles written by Eleonora Evi - World Water Day: The Right to Water

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