There is no doubt that state of the art waste management should be one of the vital ingredients of a successful transition to a circular economy in Europe. Waste should cease to be a problem and become an opportunity. All waste should be regarded as a wasted opportunity.
During the past decade the EU saw a steady increase in growth and employment in the recycling sector, even during the crisis years. The recycling industry has created a viable business in retrieving precious materials from waste, while creating profits and jobs, increasing resource efficiency and reducing our dependency on raw material imports. EU waste policy and legislation have been key drivers of this trend.
However, there is no room for complacency. Progress cannot be taken for granted, and there is still significant potential to push recycling levels further up. Europe still loses around 600 million tonnes of waste materials per year, due to the suboptimal design of products, wasteful use, and insufficient recycling.
In order for the circular economy to be successful, waste legislation must be fully implemented across the EU.
Currently, some member states already recycle around 60 per cent of their municipal waste, with this rate being even higher in some regions, while others report less than 20 per cent recycling, and still above 70 per cent landfilling.
It is true that some countries are making progress, however improvements in others over the past few years have been sorely limited. It is crucial that we close such implementation gaps if Europe is to make progress towards the circular economy.
Against this background, the Commission is actively promoting compliance with EU waste law and providing technical support to member states.
Over the past five years, we have launched several initiatives focusing on specific waste streams. Our efforts aim at identifying root problems, proposing specific recommendations and listing best practices throughout the EU.
One example of our ongoing work is our ‘early warning’ project, which will shortlist EU member states that are at risk of missing the 2020 50 per cent recycling target on municipal waste and will propose country-specific priority actions.
Weak progress in the implementation of waste legislation is usually linked to a number of well-known factors such as insufficiently separated collection, weak implementation of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, inadequate use of the economic instruments or lack of effective enforcement systems.
Overcoming these weaknesses is crucial, not in the least as a stepping stone towards achieving the more ambitious waste targets for 2025 and 2030 set out in the Commission’s legislative proposals, currently under negotiation between the European Parliament and member states.
Even in those parts of the EU where recycling is already high, there still is considerable scope for further improvement. These are the countries where waste generation per capita is often above average; thus much more effort is needed to prevent waste.
This is certainly a major challenge, as it requires changes across value chains, including product design and consumption patterns.
Moreover, intensification of separate collection to improve the quality of secondary raw materials, coverage of new waste streams, and greater incentives to shift recyclable waste away from incineration towards recycling are all a must.
Among the solutions the Commission is strongly advocating are better and more efficient use of economic instruments such as taxation, extended producer responsibility or pay-as-you-throw systems.
Adjustments to existing waste infrastructure and the application of novel recycling technologies will also be necessary.
While better waste management is key, moving to a genuine circular economy requires action across the entire value chain: from sourcing of raw materials, design and production of goods and services to consumption, and creation of, viable markets for secondary raw materials.
For this reason, the Commission’s circular economy action plan with its 54 specific actions targets each step of the value chain. Most of these initiatives have already been adopted or are in the course of preparation. Since 2015, key actions have been taken in areas such as eco-design, food waste, organic fertilisers, guarantees for consumer goods, and innovation and investment.
One key contribution will be the Commission’s plastics strategy including concrete actions to improve the recyclability of plastics and reduce leakages into the environment.
A Commission initiative outlining how EU chemicals and waste legislation can reinforce each other, ensuring that materials and products are, to as great an extent as possible, free of substances of concern and easily recyclable into valuable secondary raw materials, will be another important element.
The main challenge is to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit and - together - provide an effective push towards circularity. The whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Taking this ‘circular path’ will require multiple changes: technological, organisational, financial, social and educational. It calls for new forms of governance that enable and encourage public and private actors at all levels to play their part. The road ahead may seem very challenging, but
I am confident that Europe can make this transformation happen. Embracing the circular economy - and making it a key element of the fourth industrial revolution that is unfolding - offers significant opportunities. It is up to us to grasp them.