Going full circle: The Fantastic Four talk circular economy

The inside track on the new circular economy package, directly from the four European Commission Vice-Presidents and Commissioners that made it happen.

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

26 Jan 2016

Sustainability is a word that's all too often tossed around the legislative process. It's a must-use appendage, often attached to policies without much thought.

However sustainability, quite literally, is at the heart of the new circular economy package and European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans wants everyone to know. "In this age of globalisation with huge demands on land, water, food, raw materials and energy, we can't rely any longer on the 'take, make, use and throw away' approach."

"We need to go circular in the way we produce and consume," he says, adding that, "This can only work if it is done 'full circle', because what we need is to transform the way our entire economy works."


This all sounds pretty good so far. Less wasteful consumption, a more circular approach to production, what's not to like? So why did he have to withdraw the original proposals and how is the new package different?

"We withdrew the previous proposals because the approach wasn't comprehensive enough," says Timmermans adding, "It relied on simply setting targets to reduce waste output, without sufficiently spelling out how we would get there concretely."

By contrast, he says, the new measures on the table will cover the full lifecycle of products, not just waste management. The new package, "aims to close the loop and set a pathway for waste reduction throughout the EU that is both ambitious and credible." Only this all-embracing approach, he argues "will provide the strong push that we need for the circular economy."

So how effective has the new collegial or project team approach to delivering the new circular economy package been? Has it, as Timmermans' boss, Jean-Claude Juncker, said back in September 2014, helped to overcome silo-mentalities within the Berlaymont?

"Absolutely," says Timmermans; "this has truly been a collective effort, and one that I am particularly proud of. I have worked on this with Vice President Katainen and Commissioners Vella and Bienkowska directly in a core project team."

"But many others have contributed: more than half of the Commissioners and their services have been directly involved. So there is broad ownership and this is important for the implementation of the action plan which will involve the entire Commission."

The circular economy package he explains is a great example of what the new European Commission structure can deliver, and like a great meal or a four Commissioner interview feature, it's all in the planning he says.

"Because the way we have prepared it is directly relevant to the substance: it is only by working jointly and by breaking silos that we have been able to cover the full lifecycles of products, and that we can mobilise and combine all the policy instruments that are needed to make real change happen."

Despite the grumblings that the package doesn't go far enough, Timmermans is convinced the new package will make a difference and "contribute to protecting the environment and tackling climate change, while also helping boost investment, competitiveness and job creation."

On the issue of some EU member states being granted five year extensions to achieve the package's recycling goals; Timmermans is pragmatic, arguing that the proposals have been designed to reflect the reality of different national starting points.

"Taking this into account will only help us achieve our goals; ignoring this entirely would have simply led us nowhere. But there is no blank cheque for those who are lagging behind: everyone will be expected to make an effort."

"What we want to see is real progress on the ground, not just in 2030 but also with interim targets for all in 2025. No time derogation will be possible without a compliance plan."

For Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen the promise of the package is in its capacity to generate jobs. "The job creation potential of the circular economy is huge, and the demand for better, more efficient products and services is booming," he says.

Katainen believes the package will help remove business barriers. "We want to achieve real progress on the ground and look forward to delivering on this ambition together with not only member states, regions and municipalities, but also businesses, industry and civil society."

Again this all sounds positive, but as always with stricter environmental regulations, is he not concerned about European businesses shifting operations overseas in a carbon leakage style exit?

"In fact", he says, "the circular economy gives plenty of opportunities to businesses. If we can be more resource efficient and reduce our dependency on scarce raw materials, we can develop a competitive edge globally. This enables both economically and environmentally sustainable business models."

The proposals are sending positive signals to those waiting to invest in the circular economy in Europe, not negative ones he argues. "The signal that we wanted to send when we adopted our proposals was that Europe is the best place to grow a sustainable and environmentally-friendly business."

Transitioning Europe towards a more circular economy is about reshaping the market about improving competitiveness and “"making sure that the EU is ahead of the curve. We're talking about a new logic of production and a new market economy," he says.

Katainen adds that during the process of preparing the proposals the Commission listened to thousands of opinions. "We learned in particular that they want to keep investing in Europe, and invest in sustainable projects. This has been essential for our work and for us to understand the new opportunities out there."

The European Parliament he explains has been "indispensable" throughout this consultation process. So no fear of EU businesses becoming uncompetitive then? Not according to Katainen.

"We really don't see the circular economy as a threat to jobs. On the contrary, there are thousands of jobs that will be created in Europe through investments in the circular economy. We could create more than 170,000 direct jobs by 2035 through the measures on waste management alone, and over 500,000 jobs in total."

With resource efficiency, leadership in green technologies and modern waste management, he's confident that EU businesses can build a competitive edge, generate new business and create jobs. That's a pretty ambitious bucket list. However, Katainen is confident.

"Creative initiatives by businesses and citizens already show it; and there are more and more examples, whether it's car sharing, repair cafés, or green packaging. So the question is not whether we will go circular but how fast we will go circular and how quickly we can create theses jobs and attract this investment."

For Commissioner Karmenu Vella and his environment and maritime affairs portfolio, the new package is all about realism. He dismisses criticism that the new package is a much more watered down version of its predecessor, or that it lacks specific targets.

"There are a number of very specific targets. For example, the new package proposes a target for landfilling that is mandatory and which has to be met by all member states, whereas the target included in the old proposal was an aspirational one". He also adds that the new proposals ban landfilling of separated waste, meaning anything that is recyclable shouldn't end up as landfill.

He says his confidence in the package delivering is a result of several factors. "First of all, the realism: the new targets are tailored to the reality of Europe today and to the large differences that exist between EU countries with respect to their waste management performance."

"And secondly, the all-round approach: this updated package is much more complete in that it 'closes the loop', tackling all phases of the production cycle, from design, through consumer choice, to waste."

This he suggests "sends a clear signal that the EU is taking this agenda forward and taking it forward right now."

Ocean governance and the stricter enforcement of rules in international waters is very much part of a circular economy approach and Vella says the commission is currently analysing the results of outcome of last year's public consultation.

"I myself have been engaging in exchanges with our international partners on ocean governance issues for the past year, and this listening and dialogue process will guide us in shaping our proposal," he says.

"But ideas to strengthen implementation and enforcement - in cooperation with our partners - and also new ideas to improve the way the international community tackles ocean issues are going to be among the ingredients of our upcoming initiative."

Consumers will play an important role in any transition to a circular economy and purchasing decisions based on eco-design and labelling regimes are likely to have key impact and Vella is keen to use citizen power.

"A key change we have in mind is to include aspects relevant to the circular economy such as durability, recyclability, reparability when setting up new product requirements or revising existing rules under the eco-design directive. We want to empower consumers' choices, while also ensuring a level playing field for businesses."

With mobile phones, computers and flat screens ever present, the potential for urban mining style recycling is enormous. "Flat screens will be the first product for which the Commission will propose design requirements so that they can be easier and faster dissembled, reused and recycled," he says, adding that the idea is to make it easier to reuse or recycle component parts when they reach the end of their useful life.

"That's just the first step, of course. These issues will be systematically considered when revising existing rules on washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and freezers, for example."

And Vella says he intends to weed out designs that are deliberately ineffective. "I am very excited about an independent testing programme into planned obsolescence that we will launch to identify and address such practices."

For Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, the new circular economy package has to benefit Europe's businesses. It's an old adage that business strives for a stable regulatory environment over many other concerns. So how will yet another set of complex EU rules make things better for Europe's companies?

"The aim of the new package is to give clear signals to all economic operators on the way forward," says Bienkowska. "Our measures on the internal market for waste products for example will help to create a level playing field for all companies, including across borders."

The aim, she says, is to "foster resource efficient production processes that minimise waste; help waste or byproducts of one industry become inputs for another industry; and facilitate better informed consumption choices with information on the durability of products. And we will also support the development of a thriving market for secondary raw materials."

Despite its success, there are still many European companies that struggle to make use of the EU's single market she admits, "Because the conditions weren't in place to sell their waste materials or their innovative services across borders."

Bienkowska wants to address this and in particular, to help SMEs in benefit from the business opportunities of increased resource efficiency. "We will also help reduce their dependency on raw materials from unstable parts of the world whose prices fluctuate widely, making our economies and societies vulnerable."

And, promises Bienkowska, all the legislative and policy proposals will be backed up by financial instruments and funds - €650m from Horizon 2020 and €5.5bn from structural funds aimed at helping European businesses.

"Being in the lead here can give us a competitive edge in the production and consumption patterns of the future, generate new business opportunities and create new jobs."

Making the switch from a linear to a circular economy isn't just the right thing to do for the environment she says; it's also the right and smart thing for Europe's businesses.

"We cannot compete on wage costs; we cannot compete on cheap natural resources. But with resource efficiency, leadership in green technologies and modern waste management, we can build a competitive edge, generate new business opportunities and create jobs."

And for Bienkowska the circular economy package can stimulate and drive forward Europe's economy. "We expect to see European companies becoming innovative world leaders in the delivery of sustainable products and services."

For many of Europe's companies the circular economy will mean completely changing their methods of production. Bienkowska says she's keen to make this as smooth as possible for businesses. "We have plenty of resources to help member states and the private sector to transform their behaviour towards a circular economy model," she says.

"I already mentioned resources which are dedicated to this purpose from Horizon 2020 and regional funding. We will also encourage economic incentives for producers to put greener products on the market and support the recovery and recycling schemes for areas like packaging, batteries, electric and electronic equipment and vehicles."

National governments are going to have step up to the plate however as she believes they have a key role to play in creating the right economic incentives.

"EU member states will have to make greater use of economic instruments - such as landfill taxes and incineration charges. This has proved to be a very effective instrument on the ground. As long as landfilling is a cheap option, it is an option a local mayor will not give up on."

And she wants national policymakers to be careful that diminishing landfill does not just end up leading to the cheap option of incineration. "So we need to really do this on a long term basis so that investors can depend on a consistent policy from our side."

Our four Commissioner interview finishes with a call to action for from Vice President Frans Timmermans, aimed at MEPs. "The European Parliament has been a passionate champion of the circular economy since the start of our mandate, and I don't expect that to change now."

"This is needed, because it's my deep conviction that going circular is one of the most important things Europe needs to do to build a sustainable future for our economy and our planet."

"Of course, I hope that our legislative proposals will move through the legislative process as fast as possible. Given the wide range of actions, I also hope that our action plan is not just discussed in the European Parliament's environment committee but that MEPs in a wide range of committees give their input."

"The circular economy is a matter of utmost priority for the EU and it requires the highest level of political attention from all institutions."