Revving recycling in Europe

Posted by David Symons on 12th January 2016
First published in: BlogActiv


Every home in the UK threw away around a tonne of waste last year. From the old toaster to out of date food, from waste newspapers to plastic packaging. Councils recycled around half of this waste, a quarter went to landfill. The rest goes for a range of uses, some of which includes burning to generate energy. It’s a picture which has barely changed for the past five years. Total waste generated by British homes is around the same. Recycling rates have inched up, but only by a small margin.

Brussels’ circular economy package is a welcome tonic to change the status quo. It proposes a raft of measures to help business design longer life products, cut waste from homes and business and promote material reuse and recycling. It’s an ambitious package. If all this comes good, which very much depends on the detail that the Commission needs to provide in the years to come, the results will be huge. Increasing recycling rates in the UK by 20% by 2030 and greatly reducing landfill rates.

But while the plan is a good start, the hard work begins now. Three actions will help policy makers deliver the ambition and promise of the circular economy package:

  1. Have a long term view. Two thirds of the 54 actions set out in the plan to deliver the circular economy are due to be completed in 2016 and all by 2018. This energy and action is to be welcomed, but of course Europe won’t be close to a circular economy in three years. Like all business plans, the Brussels’ work programme will need regular updating. It will also benefit from clear interim outcome targets to track progress, and to keep focus on the original ambition as other political priorities inevitably emerge. Outcomes need to be performance based, not just energetic policy inputs.
  2. Develop practical policies. For all its 54 actions, the circular economy plan is light on detail. Rapid policy measures, such as extending minimum product guarantee periods from two to three years and cutting VAT rates on recycled or reused products would be high profile and have an immediate impact. Developing clear product standards to encourage the disassembly and repair of products and amending end of waste rules to ensure materials aren’t declared as waste too early could also make a big difference in the years to come.
  3. Help business learn new skills and innovate. All businesses, not just those in waste management, will need to get involved to grow a circular economy. These firms will need new skills and the confidence to expand and develop innovative business models. Three areas of important action include designing longer life products, expanding into reverse logistics, and the opportunities from business models based on a longer value chain. Our experience of working with clients to implement change shows while it’s not hard to say what needs to be done, it’s much harder to implement this in practice. Brussels and national governments can support this through business skill, research and innovation programmes.

The circular economy is a great opportunity for business and for the environment. With the help of progressive business, the Commission now needs to put forward the detail behind its proposals that will help Europe become the world leader in resource efficiency.

David Symons, environmental director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and a director of the Aldersgate Group.