EU to change resource-wasting economic model

28.04.14 @ 09:20

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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HANNOVER - The European Commission is working on policy solutions it says are needed to better address the consequences of a rising population, excessive consumption, and dwindling resources.

  • On average, people change their mobile phone every 18 months (Photo: Phil Greaney)

Speaking to reporters in Hannover in April, EU environment commissioner Janez Potocnik said if the world continues its current per capita consumption trend and if the global population rises to 9 billion people, then by mid-century three times more resources would be needed to maintain the current style of living.

“We have to change the way we produce, the way we consume, the way we basically live,” said Potocnik, who was attending the 16th annual European Forum on Eco-Innovation at the Hannover Messe.

The annual forum looked at what the commission describes as circular economies, an economic model which attempts to mimic nature in a wider effort to use resources more efficiently.

“In a linear economy you dig, produce, consume, throw away, dig deeper, produce consume, dig even more deeper, it’s becoming more costly, you have to go to more beautiful places, to places further away and so on,” he said.

Potocnik’s officials are set to publish over the summer an ideas paper on this circular model. The aim is to get companies to design products that can be easily dismantled or recycled an almost infinite number of times.

The Brussels executive is also set in June to present revised targets for the reuse and recycling of waste and reducing landfills.

Member state targets for recycling municipal and household waste are currently set at 50 percent by 2020. Potocnik wants to increase the percentages. He also wants to phase out the use of landfills.

Building construction and demolition constitutes more than one-third of waste produced in Europe. Around 70 percent is supposed to recycled or re-used, also by 2020.

Aside from metals, other materials found in construction waste such as glass, minerals, wood and different kind of plastics are often discarded.

But the problem of waste is more extensive than demolition sites.

A report out this month by the Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau (EEB) says ambitious targets for food waste reduction, reuse of textiles and furniture, and recycling, could help prevent the equivalent of around 415 million tonnes of CO₂ by 2030.

The EU, for its part, is locked in an economic model that continues to waste resources and discard large quantities of food.

Potocnik wants to pry apart the model and better adapt it to meet future needs via his circular economy recommendations.

The types of waste are extensive.

The world loses 30 percent of all the food it produces.

“It means we are losing one-third of all the land, water, energy, not to mention all the chemicals we are using to produce those plants,” said Potocnik.

The EU relies heavily on energy and mineral imports for copper, zinc, nickel, and rare earth metals used for smart technologies.

“You can produce a golden wedding ring from using ten tonnes of gold ore or recycling 10 kilos of mobile phones but we recycle in Europe still less than 10 percent of mobile phones,” said Potocnik.

On average, people change their mobile phone every 18 months. It means some 100 million mobile phones in the EU every year go unused.

“If you just recycle those you would get 2.4 tonnes of gold, 25 tonnes of silver, 1 tonne of palladium, 900 tonnes of copper yearly . . . but we do not,” he said.

Given the figures and other examples, Potocnik said it was no longer possible to dissociate the environment from the economy.

EU-US free trade deal

But earlier this year, the EEB along with nine other European health, transparency and environment NGOs, said the TTIP free trade deal currently being negotiated with the US risks weakening current EU environmental standards.

They noted, in a letter addressed to the commission, that member states might be reluctant to introduce new pro-environment legislation.

The worry is that the trade deal may include a so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism. ISDS allows foreign corporations to sue member states to protect their commercial interests without having to resort to domestic legislation.

Potocnik, for his part, said he is involved in the debates connected to the future trade agreement but dismissed any risk to having the EU standards lowered.

“That kind of mechanism [ISDS] is more needed when you have partner deal between two areas where there is a real worry that the legal system would not deliver properly. That worry between the United States and Europe is not so obvious but let’s not jump to any kind of conclusions,” he said.

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