Thursday

13th May 2021

EU declares war on 'throw-away culture'

  • 'The model of "take-make-use-dispose" has reached its limits as it pushes us to a resource crisis,' said EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius (Photo: Vibek Raj Maurya)

The European Commission has adopted a new circular economy action plan with measures for the entire life cycle of products, which it says will strengthen the EU's economy, empower consumers and protect the environment.

The package of initiatives presented on Wednesday (11 March) sets out a range of actions in those economic sectors where circularity could have a bigger effect - including electronics and ICT, plastic and textile, packaging, batteries, construction and buildings, and food.

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"The linear model of 'take-make-use-dispose' has reached its limits as it pushes us to a resource crisis," said the commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius.

"As Europe is not rich in natural resources, [the] circular economy will strengthen the immunity of our economy from geopolitical challenges," he added.

As the core of the strategy, the commission will propose new legislation by 2021 to ensure that all products placed on the EU market are designed to last longer, and are easier to reuse, repair and recycle.

"If the market offer becomes more sustainable, consumers will automatically turn to greener products. Sustainable consumption and production are the two sides of the same coin, and the commission's plan has finally captured this essence," said the director of European Consumer Organisation, Monique Goyens.

Additionally, the commission wants to propose a new regulatory framework for plastics and textiles in the coming years to reduce over-packaging and waste.

While microplastics are highlighted as a focus area in the proposal, the commitment to set a framework for biobased and biodegradable plastics may raise many questions as these plastics can have similar environmental impacts to traditional plastics - especially in the oceans.

As a whole, the commission's action plan attempts to force companies into creating a more sustainable supply chain aligned with the objectives of the Green Deal and the new EU industrial strategy.

However, the association of the Bureau of International Recycling criticised that "the circular economy action plan does not foresee relieving recyclers of the economic burden of finding and decontaminating waste".

'Head in sand'

Meanwhile, the final version of the strategy seems to be watered-down, as the commission was initially considering introducing targets for the EU's 'material footprint' - that is, the total amount of raw materials the EU economy consumes in products and services, including imports.

The circular economy action plan, instead, only includes a commitment to develop a "monitoring framework" - with no obligation for the EU to set targets to reduce resource consumption.

"Our overconsumption of resources is wrecking the environment and communities around the world, and instead of setting targets to reduce this, the commission has buried its head in the sand and merely promised to 'monitor' our consumption," said Meadhbh Bolger, campaigner at Brussels-NGO Friends of the Earth Europe.

The commission's proposal also commits to halving municipal residual waste generation by 2030 - but it fails to set waste reduction targets for specific waste streams.

"Only after evaluation takes place, current targets might be changed," Sinkevičius told reporters in Brussels.

Other unanswered questions include how the commission plans to reduce the EU's total waste generation, when waste going to recycling is not capped.

However, the commission will propose a target on food-waste reduction, as a key action under the forthcoming EU Farm-to-Fork Strategy due to be unveiled on 25 March.

'Right to repair'?

The latest commission's proposal has a particular focus on electronics and ICT since these sectors are one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the EU.

Yet, less than 40 percent e-waste is recycled in the EU.

Under the EU's eco-design rules, the commission wants mobile phones, tablets and laptops to last longer, giving consumers the 'right to repair' their devices and the right to update obsolete software.

However, Sinkevičius said that the 'right to repair' could be implemented in other policy frameworks in the future.

Additionally, regulatory measures will be introduced to ensure common chargers for mobile phones and similar devices, as well as a reward scheme to encourage consumers to return or sell back old mobile phones, tablets and chargers.

Earlier this year, MEPs urged the commission the introduction of common chargers for all mobile devices by July - although it may not be proposed until 2021.

Meanwhile, the new strategy of the commission also foresee solutions such as "digital passports for products" that will provide information on a product's origin, durability, composition, reuse, repair and dismantling possibilities, and end-of-life handling.

"When you have better and trustworthy information you can avoid 'greenwashing' easier," said the Sinkevičius.

Analysis

First 100 days: Digital and Green Deal policies hit by crises

The first 100 days of Ursula von der Leyen's commission were supposed to be about the digital and environmental transitions. However, that agenda has been hit by first the coronavirus, and now the Greek border situation.

ExxonMobil lobbyists pushed for weaker EU Green Deal

ExxonMobil lobbyists pushed the EU commission to weaken climate regulation for the transport sector with a two-pronged strategy: supporting the Paris Agreement, while dwelling on long-term technical solutions and promoting oil and gas usage in the green transition.

Investigation

How Apple lobbied EU to delay common smartphone charger

iPhones and Android products don't use the same charger. This is annoying for consumers and harmful for the environment. Old chargers produce more than 51,000 tons of electronic waste per year.

MEPs agree carbon border tax - heavy industries protected

Green groups warned that if heavy industry continues to receive free allowances even after a carbon border levy is in place, this would essentially be a double subsidy for those sectors. "The European Commission must correct this," the WWF warned.

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