The European Files is a political, economical and social magazine destined to European institutions. The magazine’s goal is to serve as a real work tool, helping in the decision-making process. Each file provides a global vision on specific subjects, dealt with at a European level, by regrouping industry, parliament and European government contributions.

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December 2016 – n°44

Laurent Ulmann, Editor-in-chief, The European Files

Recycling in Europe, the Future of Raw Materials

Recycling in Europe? Momentum is building around the Circular Economy. The objective is to increase resource efficiency while reducing waste and pollution, including through ecological design. Last December, the European Commission introduced a Circular Economy package to promote this transition. The package consists in an Action Plan and timeline complemented by Directives for the European Union (EU). The principles of this package are deeply rooted in a need to strengthen the European Union’s efficiency and resilience in an increasingly dynamic world economy. This is presented as the natural result of a discourse set by the Commission in 2012 with the publication of Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe. An economic model works best when it benefits all actors involved; through this action plan, the EU must also strive for an economy that provides secure jobs for its citizens. This is also an opportunity to lead the international community in the commitments made towards achieving the goals set by the COP21.

This issue of The European Files provides an insight into the major proponents driving the Circular Economy. Central to the EU’s vision is its ability to push legislation for a more transparent, effective and standardized approach to recycling. Policy makers must work hand-in-hand with enterprises to design frameworks that transcend market failures into opportunities. The priority is to reduce waste but also the water and energy footprints, however reusing, recovering and recycling should accommodate a growing and pioneering economy. The Commission’s legislative actions, show a move in the right direction. They should not fail to adequately encourage resource management, biowaste management, and sewer water recycling. No economic “loop” will be completed if dangerous materials are not properly taken care of; the EU must clarify its standards for the treatment of toxic waste. Biowaste management should be promoted where it makes sense from an environmental and economic perspective. The recycling of treated waste water and sewage sludge must be promoted and minimum quality standards set with regard to the destination of the reused product. There are already very positive examples of economic viable green local loops through Europe and high performing regions with regard to resource efficiency, however the discrepancies within Europe regarding recycling are striking. Behavior and economical changes will require a more demanding and harmonized continental scheme with targeted incentives. The strongest top-down market mechanism for change is the Commission’s ability to finance pioneers in eco-design, innovation in waste management and to trigger drivers to develop markets for recycled material. Sustainable finance should support sustainable industries such as recycling. Extracting extra value from waste, or rather adding value back into the economy is a critical objective of these successful campaigns.

Policymaking must listen to the voice of NGOs, local authorities,companies and researchers, as on the ground actors of the  circular economy. This will ensure that the policies evaluated are well designed and aligned with future market opportunities—this is especially true for raw resource of heavy industries such as construction. Forethought into the design of products is equally important to the waste management systems developed. Together, the EU could create entirely new industries of maintenance and repair, both high-quality service industries, while also promoting an industry of goods sharing. This is in addition to a Secondary Raw Materials market that would help reduce Europe’s dependence on raw resource imports as the economy transitions into a more self-sufficient one.

The Circular Economy package clearly envisions a stronger and more secure market for its citizens. As more evidence mounts on the unsustainable and costly maintenance of the current “take, make, dispose” model of production, a European vision for a Circular Economy should be central to the wellbeing of its citizens.

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