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The Circular Economy Is Waiting for a European Regulatory Helping Hand


Promoting a circular economy built on smart resource management is a technical and technological challenge as much as a regulatory challenge. Now that the European Commission has withdrawn the “Circular Economy Package”, new regulatory changes are currently being discussed at the European level, regarding recycling, eco-design, and other issues that could accelerate the transition.

In 2014, the change of European Commission president led to give up the “package” dedicated to the circular economy. The previous Commission had developed a body of texts designed to increase waste recycling and make incineration and landfill regulations more rigorous. Six previous directives were thus revised in light of this goal, and new targets were included to recycle 90% of paper and 65% of plastic by 2025, and 90% of ferrous metals and glass by 2030.

To counter criticism of its withdrawal of the legislative package, the Commission has hastened to assert that it is preparing a new, more ambitious package. Instead of concentrating on waste, this package “could encourage use of high quality, easily recyclable materials”, according to Karl Falkenberg, Director-General of the Environment for the Commission.

© David Plas, SUEZ environnement

Meanwhile, the EEB (European Environmental Bureau), a federation of 140 European environmental NGOs, proposes opening a new front with the Eco-Design Directive, which was adopted in 2005 and supplemented in 2009. It sets design standards to increase the energy efficiency of electrical and electronic products (range hoods, ovens, etc.).

In a report, the EEB laments that the Eco-Design Directive concentrates only on the issue of energy, and instead proposes new avenues to reduce the use of resources. For example, it recommends designs that allow products to be repaired, last longer, and be recycled; that eliminate substances that prevent reuse; or again the increased use of recycled materials.

The EEB believes in taking action now. It stresses that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) predicts that annual global consumption of minerals, fossil fuels, and other biomasses will rise from 60 billion tonnes today, to 140 billion tonnes by 2050. Eco-design that truly optimises their use would be of even greater utility to Europe which has to import most of the raw materials required for its industries.

One thing is certain: whether through eco-design, or through the future package being prepared in Brussels, the circular economy will need – just as CO2-emissions, water, and green-building movements did in the past, – a regulatory helping hand in order to spread its model which is now unanimously recognised as sound.