EU circular economy framework proposals lack teeth, critics say

EXCLUSIVE: Disappointment has been expressed over the European Commission's forthcoming circular economy framework, with some experts believing the proposals don't go far enough.

Details of the framework were leaked last week in Brussels, where the Commission was hosting its annual Green Week conference. The package is still being consulted on ahead of an official launch next month, but it is likely to set a 70% recycling rate for municipal solid waste, an 80% recycling target for packaging waste by 2030, and a landfill ban for recyclable materials by 2025.

While the proposals have been broadly welcomed as a positive step towards advancing resource efficiency, some are questioning whether the framework is robust enough to help build a circular economy across Europe.

Speaking to edie, the Green Alliance’s head of resource stewardship Dustin Benton – who facilitates the UK’s Circular Economy Taskforce – said that the package lacked the inclusion of more specific, circular targets.

“Making a really significant impact would mean setting disassembly, recyclability, and reusability requirements under the Ecodesign Directive to take the worst options off the market, reforming economic instruments to reward reuse and recycled content, and setting a challenging resource efficiency target which drives activity that is more transformative than recycling,” he said.

On a more fundamental level, Benton said that innovation policy and funding will be needed to support the new technologies and business models required for transformative change.

“BIS in the UK recently recognised that its industrial strategies need to do more to adapt the UK to a world where demand for resources is increasing and prices can be volatile. The EU needs to adapt its policy to this challenge too.”

Independent circular economy consultant James Greyson who runs think-tank BlindSpot told edie that the targets proposed under the framework were more geared towards making a linear economy run better.

“If you want to change the system to a real circular economy … then you instead focus on the fundamental policy choice that defines whether we have a linear or circular system. A policy package that does this would need much less regulation to stimulate much more sustainability far faster than any incremental target,” he argued.

Any regulation should build in economic tools to incentive producers to design out waste from the outset, Greyson added. “There’s no need to tell producers what should happen with every kind of item. They know about design and the waste hierarchy already. Business can easily innovate to fit their models to the circular economy model. All they need is the responsibility and the market incentives.”

Marc de Wit, senior project manager at the Netherlands-based Circle Economy institute, said that while recycling in many cases offers a significant improvement compared to landfill, if the framework focuses on it too much it will only allow for incremental change.

“The sole focus on recycling, which in most cases means downcycling, introduces a lock-in to suboptimal systems preventing more disruptive technologies to be introduced,” he told edie.

Meanwhile the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has issued a press statement lamenting the framework’s lack of focus on waste prevention, saying that it “regrets” a prevention target is only being considered for food waste, with no specific targets for reuse nor a limit on incineration.

Commenting on the proposals, the EEB’s policy officer for waste Piotr Barczak said: “The package is promising, but still falls short of what is needed. You can’t build a circular economy just by recycling more and more with our current production and consumption patterns. You also need to cut down on the waste you generate and the way to do that is through legally binding waste prevention targets.”

Maxine Perella

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