17 Jan 2022

Written by

Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director at Zero Waste Europe

The new year is here – is Europe ready for the fastest transition in our lifetime?

Waste Policy

The long anticipated crisis of resource scarcity is here. On top of the climate crisis, not having yet recovered from the pandemic and loaded with debt from the last financial crisis, we are now experiencing how the disruption of supply chains, combined with the surging energy prices is pushing prices upwards across the board.

Considering that we are past peak oil and approaching peak gas, it is unlikely that energy prices are going to go down anytime soon.
The good news is that this is a crisis that Europe kind of anticipated already back in 2014 when the first Circular Economy (CE) strategy was published. The idea that we can’t run a linear economy on a finite planet made as much sense then as it does now. Indeed, the more energy and resource prices increase, the less profitable it is to run a throw-away economy.
So, wind into the sails of the circular economy, doesn’t it? Well, not necessarily…

The bad news is that the EU is ill-equipped to deliver a CE when Europe needs it the most. Circularity is not something that happens when there is nothing left to throw away in our linear economy. As history shows, the alternative to the current linear globalised economy can well be autarchy and even war. If we are to get to a CE, we need to change many things fundamentally.

The EU has so far retrofitted its waste policies to turn waste into a resource and it is currently planning to reshuffle its product policy so that products and packaging can last longer, be less toxic, and be repairable and recyclable – as well as redirecting public financing to better solutions.
The challenge, though, is that when we are experiencing the fastest economic transition in our history, policy-making as usual (PMAU) is unlikely to deliver in the timescale needed. Yes, we need visionary legislation in chemicals, agriculture, products, taxation, etc. – but, more than that, we need action and we need it fast. The process of policy-making takes between 5 and 10 years to turn a good idea into a watered-down policy that is implemented on the ground – provided laws are enforced, something that should not be taken for granted.

Same as with the COVID-19 vaccine, the European citizens cannot wait 10 years for policies to solve the impending problems of the present.
As of today, the European Commission (EC) is already overstretched to deliver in the process of PMAU. Files like the revision of the sustainable product initiative, the packaging and packaging waste directive, or the food contact material legislation, to name a few, are being delayed. We are also seeing the quality of impact assessments go down, and often there is duplication of work in different areas within the EC. The reality is that, despite laudable efforts from its qualified personnel, the EU lacks the resources and the structure to deliver on PMAU.

Now imagine that on top of PMAU we want to ensure proper enforcement of the new and old legislation. Neither member states nor the EU have enough resources to enforce the law, and it is symptomatic that it has to be the NGOs and consumer organisations who do biomonitoring and testing to ensure that emissions from incinerators or hazardous substances in products or packaging don’t exceed the legal limits; or to assess whether the EU is allowing toxic waste to be exported outside our borders to pollute the global south.

The fact that, every time we test for law compliance, we find serious irregularities, is proof that the lack of law enforcement is a chronic issue. The industry knows very well that the public authorities don’t have the means to enforce the law, leading to the paradox that few things actually change even when new ambitious legislation is passed.

And, finally, add to the mix the new supply crisis. What are the mechanisms and expertise in the hands of the EU to intervene in favour of a new CE? Who will decide whether the few microchips available are used for video game consoles, electric cars, or medical equipment? Is this even a question anyone is asking?

A properly implemented Circular Economy plan is a key tool to increase our social resilience, reduce our dependence on resources from overseas, increase efficiency, and reduce waste and pollution. The Circular Economy, like the decarbonisation agenda, is key for our future.

For the moment, a few hundred civil servants working in CE within the EC seem like a small force to deliver the fastest economic transition in our lifetime. History teaches us that humans only act with wisdom once we have exhausted all other options. While we are running out of those, let’s remember that winter is here… and we are not ready.