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Has the Circular Economy’s Moment Finally Arrived?

The ongoing public health crisis and related economic fallout shows us that a sound economy is as important as ever. While tradeoffs will need to be made to protect people’s health and address the negative shocks to the European economy, we must not forget, delay or water down our policy ambitions for a more circular and resilient economy. It is in the times of adversity that radical transformations are often easier to achieve. This is therefore a key moment to rethink the way we consume and operate and make a positive change to become truly sustainable and circular.

The Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the most important European Green Deal initiatives, is a catalogue of great ideas to put this into practice. Many of the concepts within it have been around for decades, but here they come with the concrete actions and precise timelines needed to bring them to fruition. Rather than a narrow focus, circularity in this plan takes a broad approach, including not only waste handling, but also a focus on production and consumption patterns, eco-design, leasing rather than buying, durability, repairability and eventually recyclability. It envisions lifecycle assessments for all products and services, and a truly comprehensive review of existing EU legislative acts. In my estimation, the aim of the approach is looking very green indeed, directly in line with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s remarks in the European Parliament on the European Green Deal after she took office in December.

Are we witnessing a paradigm shift in which Europe and the entire world will finally become truly sustainable? Nothing is less certain. Unfortunately, it is not enough to produce a circular table of contents. Even where legislation is envisaged in the form of new requirements or as a revision of existing ones, a bit more clarity would have been useful. Old targets appear to have made a comeback, for recyclability, repairability, and even durability, alongside new targets for Public Green Procurement and the use of recycled materials.

But a basic, and crucial, underlying provision does not feature in the Plan. Recycling can be spurred by a ban of non-treated waste to landfills. Several EU Member States have imposed this measure and rapidly seen the benefits. Why not finally extend these regulations and share the success stories more widely across the entire EU?

Targets make sense, but their effectiveness depends on their ambition, their definition and the will to enforce them. We should not just simply aim for quantitative targets either. Downcycling, the result of most plastic recycling at present, is not a solution. The mandatory use of contaminated recyclates is going to prove completely inappropriate. I hope that the implementation of recycling targets will offer a fair amount of subsidiarity, demonstrate how quality recycling can best be achieved, and that there will be common measuring and strict implementation monitoring along with it.

The list of proposed actions does, thankfully, include references to mandatory measures. On balance, though, these measures are introduced with weaker terms such as review, scoping, supporting, reflecting, mainstreaming, or updating. So many of these initiatives in the end still rely on the goodwill and environmental consciences of consumers, both at home and abroad. Considering that European consumers repeatedly and consistently answer that some 70% would purchase sustainable goods at higher prices in Eurobarometer polls, it remains disappointing to see that these products’ market share lingers in the single digits. This Action Plan would be the ideal method to give these consumers what they want.

To scale our circular systems up to the levels we will need in the future, more than pleas will be necessary. Our policy framework will have to change at a fundamental level. As long as we continue to subsidise fossil fuels or industrial monoculture agriculture, it will remain difficult for sustainable practices to take off. We also need concrete measures to end the use of environmentally harmful substances and revisit the common agricultural policy to prioritise support for sustainable rural development.

Despite some reservations, I remain an eternal optimist. On balance, the broad scope of the Action Plan is welcome, despite all of its shortcomings. The final test will come as these intentions are translated into effective regulatory measures. Furthermore, the debate around the EU long-term budget, its size and allocation will be the first litmus test of the determination of Commission, Parliament and Council to move firmly in the direction of a sustainable Europe, at a time when we must also address the fallout of a public health crisis.

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