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Language barriers

Language barriers

With the consultation on the revised Circular Economy Package now live, we are beginning to gain some idea of what the package may look like when it finally emerges at the end of the year. The previous manifestation included a legislative proposal and a communication from the commission. The package was never completely withdrawn – only the legislative proposal was withdrawn, with officials promising a more ambitious follow-up. The communication remains as issued.

It’s not surprising that the consultation focuses on ‘non-waste’ aspects, although of course, waste still features strongly in the details. The main consultation is split into five key areas:

  • production phase;
  • consumption phase;
  • markets for secondary raw materials;
  • sectoral measures; and
  • enabling factors, including innovation and investment.

The questions ask what the priorities should be (in terms of products or sectors), and seek views as to the effectiveness of various measures listed. 

If there is to be some meaningful policy in support of the circular economy in the revised package, then it’s the measures that are likely to be important. But many of the measures are couched in terms of ‘encouraging’, or ‘promoting’, which might be difficult to translate meaningfully into any form of game-changing policy. 

In the production phase section, there is a list of ‘measures to promote circular economy principles in product design at EU level’, ‘actions at EU level to promote circular economy solutions in production processes’ and ‘actions at EU level for promoting sustainable production and sourcing of raw materials’. Under each heading, you are invited to give views on the importance of the measures or (for production and sourcing) their effectiveness. I couldn’t help thinking that these questions were likely to lead to responses in which – given the lack of really concrete descriptions of measures and actions – most respondents would say that everything was important, or that most of the actions could be effective (it’s simply not possible to say without a better description of what’s being proposed). 

Some of the measures on the consumption side seemed to be oddly worded. For example, one idea is to ‘ensure the clarity, credibility and relevance of consumer information related to the circular economy (e.g. via labels, advertising, marketing, etc.) and protect consumers from false and misleading information in this respect’. I don’t know what ‘information related to the circular economy’ is if it is not part of the more general body of information, but it struck me that privileging such information seemed to indicate that it was perfectly okay to provide false and misleading information, just as long as it had nothing to do with the circular economy. 

This article was taken from Issue 81

It’s not going to be entirely straightforward to develop policy proposals at EU level that lend strong support to the circular economy. The section on enabling factors is of greater significance: the support given by European institutions to regions, and to international projects, could help stimulate the circular economy. But it seems important to recognise that some of the supposedly new business models are not so new after all – leasing is not, after all, a novel concept – and that their spread has as much to do with the technologies we use to make transactions with the underlying production process. The way businesses sell to consumers will change as the means through which consumers are able to make purchases are transformed. The facilitating role being played by information technologies should not be underestimated. 

None of the consultation is addressed to the waste-related targets. Different observers might read different things into this, but the absence of consultation could be taken to mean that these targets (on recycling of municipal waste and packaging waste) will emerge relatively unchanged. As the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, has put it, “we can’t be more ambitious by lowering our targets”. Recently-leaked documents from Defra suggest, however, that whilst parts of the UK might take these in their stride, Whitehall isn’t so enamoured by the prospect. Defra seems to prefer voluntary agreements. As plastics reprocessors might testify, however, this sort of voluntarism allows companies to determine how circular they will be according to the price of oil.