EU circular economy – a new ambition in European sustainable development
09 February 2016
The recent EU circular economy package proposal published in early December 2015 marks a new ambition in sustainable development across Europe. ‘Closing the loop – An EU action plan for the circular economy’ is intended to boost competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs. It calls for resources to be used in a more sustainable way in a ‘circular’ economy unlike the ‘linear economy’ which we know only leads to unnecessary waste (Figure 1).
The proposed actions will contribute to ‘closing the loop’ of product life cycles through greater recycling and re-use and brings benefits for both the environment and for the economy and jobs.
What makes this new EU initiative more innovative is that it is the result of coordination across the relatively new Juncker Commission led by two of its vice-presidents – first vice-president Frans Timmermans responsible for sustainable development and vice-president Jyrki Katainen responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness supported by EU environment and maritime affairs commissioner Karmenu Vella.
Uniquely also this initiative has had the positive effect already of creating remarkable convergence between Irish and UK waste policies.
New jobs while preserving precious and increasingly scarce resources
The circular economy has the potential to create many new jobs while preserving precious and increasingly scarce resources, reducing environmental impacts of resource use and injecting new value into waste products. Sectoral measures are also set out as well as quality standards for secondary raw materials.
The EU Action Plan will provide €650 million for research and innovation under EU Horizon 2020 and €5.5 billion in structural funding to stimulate the transition to a circular economy. There will be actions to substantially reduce food waste, develop quality standards for secondary raw materials, promote ecodesign and actions on water reuse.
The plan is also to increase municipal waste recycling to 65 per cent (currently 40 per cent on average) and reduce landfill to a maximum of 10 per cent across Europe by 2030. These measures are very much in line with the current government waste policy published in 2012 ‘Waste: A Resource Opportunity’ which had similar objectives leading to self-sufficiency in our waste treatment and therefore no exports.
It will lead to the virtual elimination of landfill by the next decade. This measure was introduced by then Environment Minister Phil Hogan, now EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. There are however many European countries who do not yet have this ambitious policy.
It was therefore no surprise that Environment Minister Alan Kelly welcomed the new circular economy proposals. He stated “the pursuit of compatible environmental and economic objectives is already a cornerstone of our national waste policy and we are more than willing to play our part in implementing a Circular Economy package that balances ambition with pragmatism and builds on existing conditions in member states”.
Indeed the three new Regional Waste Management Plans adopted in Ireland (Eastern and Midlands Region, Southern Region and Connacht Ulster Region) in May 2015 were based on many of the same objectives as the new EU Circular Economy proposal.
I say proposal because before this new plan can be implemented it must be debated and passed by both the EU Council and the EU Parliament. This approval is now being pressed by the current Dutch presidency.
The proposal also contains a new framework for product design, production processes, waste recycling targets and green public procurement. This latter area has recently been addressed by the EPA who in 2014 published ‘Green Public Procurement: Guidance for the Public Sector’ assisted by RPS as principal authors.
The Circular Economy proposal states that ‘public procurement accounts for a large proportion of European consumption’ (nearly 20 per cent of EU GDP). It can therefore play a key role in the circular economy and the Commission will encourage this role through its actions on Green Public Procurement (GPP) where criteria are developed at EU level and then used by public authorities on a voluntary basis.
‘Waste management plays a central role in the circular economy’
On waste, the proposal states that ‘waste management plays a central role in the circular economy: it determines how the EU waste hierarchy is put into practice. The waste hierarchy establishes a priority order from prevention, preparation for reuse, recycling and energy recovery through to disposal such as landfilling. This principle aims to encourage the options that deliver the best overall environmental outcome’.
The reuse website FreeTrade Ireland is an excellent example of a public sector initiative to prevent household bulky items like furniture from entering the waste stream. It started as FreeTrade Dublin managed by RPS on behalf of Dublin City Council. Its success led to extension of this initiative country-wide as FreeTrade Ireland, which is now managed by the EPA and funded by DOECLG and the local authorities.
In a circular economy, materials that can be recycled are injected back into the economy as new raw materials thus increasing the security of supply. At present secondary raw materials still account for a small proportion of the materials used in the EU (less than 10 per cent in fact). For example, according to the Commission, if 95 per cent of used mobile phones were collected, this could generate savings on manufacturing material costs of more than €1 billion. The proposal also seeks to assist by clarifying existing rules on ‘end-of-waste’.
On water reuse, the Commission will take a series of actions including a legislative proposal on minimum requirements for reused water e.g. for irrigation and groundwater recharge. Recycled nutrients (phosphates and nitrates) are a distinct and important category of secondary raw materials.
They are present in organic waste material for example and can be returned to soils as fertilisers. Their sustainable use in agriculture reduces the need for mineral-based products the production of which has negative environmental impacts and depends on imports of phosphate rock, a limited resource.
In sectoral areas the proposal singles out priority areas as plastics, food waste, critical raw materials (e.g. used in electronic devices like iPhones), construction and demolition waste and biomass.
Plastics and food waste were particular priority wastes studied in the Government funded ‘rX3 – Rethink Recycle Remake’ project from 2008 to 2014 the Final Report on which has recently been published by the Department of the Environment Community and Local Government. This project was managed on the Department’s behalf by RPS under contract following procurement in 2008.
rx3 was a new national platform to assist national waste recycling for paper, plastics and organics based on resource efficiency. The main focus was on closing the material loop, through the development of markets for reusable, remanufactured and recyclable materials. This closed loop recycling project correctly anticipated the new ‘circular economy’ policy by the EU Commission favouring eco-innovation, economic development and job creation.
Three types of actions have been completed by rx3 and advisory reports are available online at www.rx3.ie and summary of outcomes are available in the final report:
- Technical – e.g. the development of materials standards and systems of quality control so that the market can have confidence in the product’s consistency and reliability;
- Communications – overcoming barriers due to a lack of awareness and understanding of the possible benefits of recycled materials and their availability by creating dialogue and cooperation between stakeholders;
- Economic Incentives – supporting innovation and jobs, product development and cross-sectoral initiatives between those managing the waste and those creating new products.
The final report found that the rx3 interventions were wide ranging and impactful. Despite the economic crisis that overlapped with the programme, rx3 contributed to economic recovery, value creation (including intellectual property), job creation and to an increase in municipal material recycling rates to 35 per cent in 2012. Municipal composting and anaerobic digestion rates also increased.
The project was of key strategic importance to the greening of the Irish economy and to the development of green enterprises in Ireland. The report found that rx3 had proactively contributed to addressing key strategic areas including: Environmental Innovation and R&D, Low Carbon Economy, Green Enterprise, Green Economy, Economic Instruments to enhance the Green Economy and Benefits of North South Cooperation. In recognition of these achievements, rx3 won the Green Public Sector Award at the 2013 National Green Awards.
One of the beneficiaries of the market development programme was new start-up company Obeo spun out of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) – an NUI college in alliance with UCD – who now make and sell compostable food waste boxes which are available in major retail outlets nationwide and online.
“We couldn’t have set up Obeo as a start-up out of NCAD without the guidance and support of rx3 who were of tremendous assistance” stated Kate Cronin, Obeo founder.
This project represented a fundamental mind shift from the old ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ tag line to a more holistic approach ‘Rethink Recycle Remake’ emphasising the role of eco design thinking aimed at waste prevention and the need to close the manufacturing loop by reusing and recycling materials as far as possible. If you can’t recycle it, then you should not make it. Also central to the circular economy is the necessary recycling and recovery of waste to practically eliminate landfill.
Another priority waste stream is construction and demolition waste which is highly recyclable material once sustainable markets are established. This is currently a major concern in Ireland with the roll out of new infrastructural projects – hospitals and other buildings, road rail and metro projects – which will potentially create large volumes of waste to be planned and managed into the circular economy by the construction industry.
There is no doubt that this new EU Circular Economy package if approved will greatly increase the environmental and economic sustainability of all Member States especially in Ireland as our economy now is the fastest growing in the EU (at about six per cent per annum). As you can see from this article, Ireland is already very aligned with this forward thinking from the EU so that we can hopefully have early starter advantage in realising the environmental and economic benefits including job creation that will flow.
PJ Rudden BE CEng FIEI FIAE FICE FCIWM FIGEM FConsEI is group business director for RPS Ireland and UK Infrastructure. He was director of the EU Commission appointed secretariat for the European Green Capital Award from 2010 – 2015. He was also president of Engineers Ireland (2011 – 2012) and is currently president of the UCD Engineering Graduates Association (2012 – 2016).http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/02/09/eu-circular-economy-a-new-ambition-in-european-sustainable-development/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Circular-Economy.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Circular-Economy-300x300.jpgCivilEuropean Union,waste