The Insider: Going round in circles?

The Insider asks if the long-awaited Circular Economy Package delivered on its promises

So it’s out. The much-awaited circular economy package emerged in early December. Like the one that was previously withdrawn, there are two main documents, an action plan entitled ‘Closing the Loop’, and a legislative proposal on waste amending various directives. Did this revised package deliver on the much-touted aim for greater ambition?

The action plan – where the non-waste elements of the package are to be found – foresees a shift of emphasis in the Ecodesign Directive (not just energy efficiency) and further action in respect of green public procurement. Both of these are areas with great potential, but work has tended to proceed on a product-by-product basis and, so, will take time. Priority areas for action are also defined in respect of plastics, food waste, critical raw materials, construction and demolition, and biomass and bio-based products. There is also a commitment to funding, mainly through existing financing measures, some of which are already underway. In many respects, the action plan is a latent one, with commitment made to reviews, or developing plans, in future so their impact can only be guessed at. There is a slightly stronger link between the action plan and the content of the legislative proposals, so that the package seems more coherent than the previous incarnation.

In the proposed waste directive, Article 5 sets out an approach to clarify rules on byproducts to facilitate industrial symbiosis. Article 8 has changed from that in the withdrawn package, with some important features of producer responsibility schemes promoted, especially those linked to a circular economy. The article could transform the UK’s schemes so that producers are
made properly financially responsible, pushing for producers’ contributions to cover ‘the entire cost’ of waste management, ‘taking into account the revenues from reuse or sales of secondary materials from their products’. This seems to support the proposal of a recent CIWM/ESA report on dealing with price volatility in local authority waste contracts.

The new Article 9, on waste prevention, steps beyond what was in the withdrawn package and maintains that member states shall take measures to: prevent waste, including encouraging the use of more circular products; identify and target the prevention of products that are the main sources of critical raw materials from becoming waste; encourage the setting up of systems promoting reuse, especially for electrical and electronic equipment, textiles and furniture; reduce waste generation in industrial, mining and construction and demolition processes; reduce the generation of food waste along the supply chain.

This article was taken from Issue 83

The targets for municipal waste recycling are increased to 65 per cent by 2030, with the scope for choosing between one of four methods (which exists for current targets) being removed. This is lower than in the withdrawn package (the same is true for packaging recycling targets), though the proposal leaves the door open for higher targets to be proposed at a review stage in 2024. A controversial aspect is likely to be the suggestion that outputs from sorting processes can be counted as recycled as long as a maximum of 10 per cent of the output is not subject to a final recycling process.

Article 22 also implies a considerable shift, indicating that separate collection of biowaste should be implemented wherever it is ‘technically, environmentally and economically practicable and appropriate to ensure the relevant quality standards for compost’. There is a link to the action plan’s commitment to revise the EU regulation on fertilisers.

So, have we got a more ambitious package on the table? Since legislative targets have been lowered, and what comes out of the action plan is uncertain, it does feel like a bit of a damp squib. No less relevant, given that the decision to withdraw the old package was made by a commissioner seeking to streamline processes, is whether, a year on, we are any closer to a package that will be adopted. It feels like we’ve wasted time making revisions and changes that could have been made as the package was being negotiated and finalised. Now, we still have that to do. For the UK, this could even coincide with Brexit campaigns, and the position of Whitehall vis-à-vis devolved administrations will be very interesting to watch.