EU told: treat waste as an opportunity not a problem

As every year 600 million tonnes of valuable material is lost, the implementation of a circular economy would benefit Europe, says Karl-Heinz Florenz.

By Karl-Heinz Florenz

21 Nov 2014

What I very often hear, as soon as an idea is put forward in concrete legislative obligations is, "in principle we support the idea of the circular economy and of waste treatment – but". Member states warmly welcomed the idea of the circular economy at the informal environment council in Milan this year. However, if you listened to the very same group of ministers during the last environment council in October, when the concrete legislative file, the 'waste package', was discussed, you would not have thought that you had listened to the same people.

We have to ensure that politics sets investment in the right direction. We have to build a clear perspective for the medium and long term in order to prevent investment being directed towards inflexible projects not in line with the waste hierarchy, such as incineration instead of recycling – a lot can be done here.

"As long as you treat waste as a problem, it stays as a problem, when you treat it as a chance, opportunities will open up and things will change" – Janez Potočnik

In 2012, on average only 27 per cent of municipal waste in Europe was recycled, while in some regions over 90 per cent of waste was still landfilled and less than five per cent was recycled. We bury our secondary raw materials, of which our industry is in desperate need, for example, one million mobile phones contain 250 kg of silver, 24 kg of gold, nine kg of palladium and nine tonnes of copper. Recycling would therefore recover a lot of secondary raw materials. The collection of electric and electronic waste is not for its own sake, but to handle our limited resources responsibly. Every year, we lose 600 million tonnes of valuable material.

Furthermore, we could reduce greenhouse gases between 146 and 244 million tonnes by 2020, which would represent up to 31 per cent of the 2020 EU target. And if we look at the job potential of the directive, it is a real investment programme. If we finally complied with the already existing waste policy, we could create 400,000 additional and direct jobs in Europe and a further 180,000 jobs by 2030 by implementing the new waste targets. A lot of member states are hesitant when it comes to managing their ambitions of meeting recycling targets.

But what is interesting to mention is the fact that within member states that are performing poorly, there are regions which are doing very well, and these are often not heavily populated regions. This clearly illustrates it is possible to deal with the waste issue effectively and that obstacles to successful waste management can be overcome at the local level.

Finally, I would like to quote the former environment commissioner Potočnik here, "As long as you treat waste as a problem, it stays as a problem, when you treat it as a chance, opportunities will open up and things will change". What we need is the political will to change things; otherwise we will remain locked in our old linear model of consumption, and we will never reap the benefits of a circular economy.


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