Collecting knowledge: Spreading circular economy best practice in Europe

If we are to create a circular economy, everyone needs to be on board. Resource looks at how Zero Waste Europe is spreading best practice across the continent, and how lessons for a greener future already exist, they just need to be accessed


Whenever we hear about policy development, the words ‘communication’ and ‘collaboration’ often crop up. Industry must work with local government to resolve this issue, producers must communicate with reprocessors
 to sort that out. But it seems that rarely do we take an international view on utilising best practice. We are 
all inextricably linked to the nations around us – the environment doesn’t recognise borders, nor, as shown 
by the pervasive spread of marine pollution, does waste. Preserving resources is similarly far from a closeted national interest. When we run out, we all run out.

Since 2011, Zero Waste Europe has dedicated itself to empowering communities to rethink their relationships with resources. What started as an informal meeting
 of groups from across Europe aimed at spreading the message of waste reduction became an official foundation in 2013 and now, operating from its Brussels office, the organisation supports a vibrant network of 30 national and local NGOs across 23 countries promoting zero waste as a way to make Europe more sustainable.

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of the organisation since its inception, says the key is to rethink “modern waste management”. In the early 2000s, Simon says, cities like Vienna and Copenhagen were held up as shining examples of an evolving way of dealing with waste, but that image was based on technology and infrastructure. In truth, those cities were burning the majority of their waste. “We felt that a new paradigm was necessary,” he says. “We believed that waste goes beyond waste management to upstream consumption habits.”

Today, ZWE’s work is based on three pillars: helping municipalities work towards zero waste; influencing policy (petitioning the EU on not just waste but energy and product design); and changing consumption habits. “We have a network of around 400 municipalities around Europe working towards zero waste”, says Simon. “Not all of them are front runners but what matters is the commitment to move in the right direction.”

An essential element of sharing best practice is to understand thatwhile circumstances and geography might change, there is always something to learn. Three different ZWE case studies, for example, showcase how three very different communities can drastically alter their practice to achieve strong and sustainable results.

The Northern Italy province of Treviso is largely served by Contarina, a public company responsible
for the waste management of over 500,000 residents across 50 municipalities. In 2015, this area achieved
a recycling rate of 85 per cent, generating just 53 kilogrammes (kg) of residual waste per inhabitant (compared to the EU average of 42 per cent and 285kg). Working with other members of the ZWE network, Contarina has built on a foundation of strong source separation at the kerbside, reduction incentives like pay-as-you-throw, zero incineration and strong, cross-party political will in the province.

Some communities are bound by factors outside of their control, but can still make improvements. In France, for example, individual municipalities don’t have control over their waste collection, with an ‘intercommunale’ of cities sharing systems. For this reason, municipalities cannot move forward individually with separate collections, so must look elsewhere for improvements. Biowaste isn’t separately collected in Besançon, not far from the French/ Swiss border, so the municipality has pushed hard to promote decentralised composting, either at home or at community sites (70 per cent of the population have access to one of the two), to remove organic waste from the residual waste stream. With collections out of the picture, prevention policies like composting and promoting a zero waste lifestyle have led to 58 per cent recycling (38 per cent in 2009) and 150kg of residual waste generation per person, while saving large sums on materials that would have been sent for incineration.

And then, in Slovenia, there is Ljubljana, an EU capital covered recently in these pages (see Resource 81). “Back in 2004, they were at five per cent separate collection,” recalls Simon. “Today, they are the best performing EU capital [61 per cent of waste was separately collected in 2014], they’re not using incineration and they have invested in separate collection and pay-as-you-throw and have aggressive programmes for targeting reuse and lifestyle as well, which for us is also quite symptomatic of modern waste management.”

Collecting knowledge: Spreading best practice in pursuit of a circular economy in Europe
Separate recycling infrastructure in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Great stories are out there and they can provide vital best practice lessons for every government – central, regional or local. ZWE recently launched the Zero Waste Cities Master Plan to provide a set of tools that draw on lessons learnt by the network. “We are not reinventing
the wheel anymore,” Simon explains. “We know what needs to be done and we know how it needs to be done.” The Master Plan was launched to coincide with the long- awaited agreement on EU Circular Economy Package legislation in December (see page 5), which should provide a push for improvements in all EU member states, providing what Simon calls the “mainstreaming of the zero waste philosophy in Europe”.

The Brexit timeline suggests that agreement may
have come just too late for the UK to be beholden to
the EU legislation, but the government has committed
to embracing a circular economy in its Industrial Strategy, suggesting that it’s not removing itself from
the conversation. Nor can it, says Simon, who suggests that the destinies of a post-Brexit UK and Europe are “very much interlinked”. Export of waste and recyclables will continue and, with secondary market development, standards will need to be aligned. Indeed, Simon points to Wales as an example of national best practice that makes clear the need to retain a strong working relationship.

Wales’s leading recycling performance is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The country, hidden in official stats within the UK’s overall performance, would have
the second highest recycling rate in Europe if reported separately (it reported a municipal recycling rate of 64 per cent for 2016/17). In December 2017, a report by Eunomia Research & Consulting, produced in collaboration with the European Environmental Bureau, sought to take a global view. It created a table of the world’s best ‘real’ household recycling rates, taking into account discrepancies in reporting. This table saw Wales take third spot in the world behind Germany and Taiwan.

The report suggested that Wales is in the best shape to overtake Germany in the short term, maintaining an unyielding trajectory of improvement ever since the Welsh Government reported just seven per cent being recycled in 2001, by which time Germany was already exceeding 50 per cent. In fact, Eunomia predicts that if both countries continue to move forward at their current rate, Wales could even overtake Germany by as early as 2018.

Looking at the similarities in waste management policy and collection services across the best-performing nations, Eunomia suggests that clear performance targets and policy objectives were fairly uniform among high- achievers, as well as financial and behavioural incentives encouraging citizens to recycle (for example, restrictions on residual waste bins, pay-as-you-throw or deposit return schemes), and, unsurprisingly, comprehensive recycling schemes that were well funded, through government or producer responsibility.

These findings tally with Simon’s assessment of what
 is behind the greatest zero waste successes: “First of all is political will. You need to have the decision makers aligned and convinced and willing to take a risk. Second, you 
need to have the technical expertise, and in that regard there’s no need to reinvent the wheel because we already have that knowledge, and we just need to adapt it. The third thing is the building infrastructure. If you have big contracts with incinerators then it’s going to be a problem.

Collecting knowledge: Spreading best practice in pursuit of a circular economy in Europe
Zero Waste Europe Executive Director Joan Marc Simon

“We have observed that the investment has to go into people. On the one hand there’s collection, but you also need to educate people, not only those who collect the waste but also the people who sought policies and so on.”

Wales’s rapid rise has come on the back of strong policy leadership and investment in local authority collections, not just in treatment but in the front-line approach to waste, built around a philosophy of source separation. This was laid out in the Welsh Government’s Collection Blueprint, first published in March 2011, which provides a model system that the government felt would deliver higher recycling rates, cost savings and improved sustainable development outcomes: ‘kerbside sort’ with weekly separate collections of dry recyclables and food waste, with fortnightly collections of residual waste.

This philosophy is backed by a Collaborative Change Programme that supports local authorities to make changes towards this end goal. Incremental binding targets have also been set for local authorities, building to a 70 per cent recycling goal by 2024/25, one that Wales seems set to reach well ahead of time. Like the local example of Besançon, Wales puts emphasis on separately collected organics, which has enabled other developments within waste collection. “If you get the organic fraction well sorted the rest is relatively easy because it’s cleaner, and you can optimise the collection so that you don’t need to collect the recyclables or the residuals as frequently, so you can collect residuals once a month in some cases or every two weeks.” Reduced residual capacity, pushing recyclables and organics out of the waste stream, has been taken up by a number of Welsh councils as the next step for achieving recycling increases (see page 32).

The country of over three million inhabitants provides an example of clear and driven decision-making, says Simon: “Over the course of the last decade Wales has gone through this path of transforming waste management. There’s the expertise that Wales has, there’s political will and there’s also the fact that Wales has managed to do this with a system that is actually less expensive than systems in England and Sweden and so on, and yet get better results. In the course of 10 years, little by little, they have been managing to increase collection rates to the extent that they are now a clear front runner at European level.”

He suggests that Wales provides an example for nations starting from a low base to work towards, especially in Accession States, 10 of which joined the EU in 2004, when Wales was just beginning its upward trajectory. “The Welsh system is not more expensive than other systems used in Northern Europe, it’s rather the opposite: it’s cheaper and it provides better results when it comes to recycling. This is something that should be very appealing for new member states because they don’t have the financial capacity or the wealth of Denmark or Sweden.”

EU Regional Funds have been available to new member states, but Simon suggests that, as with the Circular Economy Package, focus is beginning to change from big infrastructure projects to the processes themselves: “The problem with this funding was that we were seeing a lot of plants and incinerators being built with little impact on the recycling rates, because there was no surplus collection. The European Investment Bank and the EU Regional Funds are geared to look at lots of money to single projects, so when you set up a waste management system in a small country of 3-5 million inhabitants in Eastern Europe, if you wanted to finance your separate collection and invest in training people, you couldn’t do it. But it was easy to build a big energy plant that was never used or an incinerator. We are seeing that the EU is starting to understand this, so funding in the future is likely to go to finance system change.”

Budget negotiations are
set to take place this year, and
Simon is optimistic that, with the
European Parliament pushing for
stricter criteria for the use of wastes for
energy and energy-from-waste subsidies, funding for developing systems will become more
flexible: “It’s important to understand that local conditions require different financial investment tools.”

But it isn’t
just new Member States that need help. The European Commission is due to publish a study in the spring on compliance with the 2020 target of 50 per cent recycling, which, according to EU figures, 18 of the 28 member states were more than five percentage points short of in 2016.

This article was taken from Issue 91

Working together to make improvements across the board is even more vital in light of emerging pressures
like a growing public demand for action on plastic waste, and China’s restrictions on a variety of imported waste materials, including post-consumer plastics. Examples like Wales, Contarina, Ljubljana and many of ZWE’s other case studies focus heavily on source separated waste and a growing need for increased quality of recyclates will likely drive this, says Simon: “If you want to recycle plastic we will need to increase the quality of the collection and that’s very difficult with co-mingled collections. It might make sense from an economic perspective but, from a long-term quality perspective, I think recycling can only take place with separated collection.

“Europe was cherry-picking when it comes to recycling. High-value plastics were being recycled in Europe, and they were generally exporting low value plastics. China
is having an impact because in some places they are wondering whether they should stop the collection of recyclables altogether, but in some other places it’s also boosting investment into plastic recycling plants.”

It’s unforeseen and wide-reaching developments like these that show why waste cannot be dealt with in a bubble, and that sharing best practice is necessary. China’s move has had a knock-on effect not only throughout Europe, but also the USA and the rest of Asia. But Simon is optimistic that the Circular Economy Package will be a game changer for European waste development.

“The new waste legislation is giving member states the legal security they need to invest in infrastructures and collection systems, because they know they need to meet certain targets,” he suggests. “And of course, this new package also makes separate collections of organics compulsory and that again is another game changer. I think the ball is now in the court of the Member States.”

Success stories are out there, we just need to spread them and implement them: “We are running out of excuses for municipalities.”