EU Issues Waste Management Rules for Circular Economy
Photo by IISD/ENB | Sean Wu
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EU member states have approved rules that set recycling targets for municipal and packaging waste as part of a broader plan on circular economy.

The rules demand collection of waste separated by materials, and the phasing out of landfilling by 2035.

Economic instruments incentivize extended producer responsibility and waste prevention, in line with the European waste hierarchy.

22 May 2018: The EU has issued a set of waste management directives as part of a broader Circular Economy Action Plan adopted in December 2015. The new rules aim to prevent waste and increase recycling.

The legislation approved by EU Member States aims to strengthen the European waste hierarchy, which prioritizes actions to take at products’ end of life. The hierarchy first seeks to prevent waste, then aims to prepare for, in order of preference, materials’ reuse, recycling, recovery or disposal.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights a need for improved waste management, including through SDGs 6, 11 and 12, as well as paragraph 34 of the declaration. SDG target 12.5 specially calls on Member States to “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.” The new EU rules set recycling targets for municipal and packaging waste, starting in 2025 and increasing the percentage of waste to be recycled, in five-year increments. The EU targets on packaging waste are material-specific (plastic, wood, glass, aluminum, etc.), with an overarching goal of recycling 65% of packaging waste by 2025, increasing to 70% by 2030.

The rules demand separation of materials, which has implications for municipal governments and existing waste collection infrastructure. By separating materials prior to collection, the EU aims to increase the quality and purity of collected waste streams, enabling the materials to be reused or fed into new production processes, thereby increasing circularity within the EU economy. To this end, the rules feature a longer-term goal on landfilling to be met by 2035. Recognizing that landfills pollute soils, groundwater and air, the directive restricts municipal waste sent to landfills to no more than ten percent of the total amount generated. The realization of these targets also will enable EU Member States to contribute directly to SDG target 11.6, which identifies municipal and other waste management systems as means of reducing cities’ adverse environmental impacts.

SDG achievement requires not just coordination across government mechanisms, but also the whole of society. The waste management legislation builds on previous efforts to engage non-state actors in the private sector, by using economic instruments and other incentives to drive extended producer responsibility (EPR). Under EPR schemes, the producer of a product or material is also responsible for it at the end of its life – as seen in phone and clothing take-back programmes. Without landfilling as an option due to the above target, waste producers and collectors will need to improve the reuse and recycling of materials, and incorporate “design for the environment” principles that increase a product’s recyclability or reuse at the end of its life.

Doing so may imply products’ being designed for simplicity or modularity, such that their components can be reused or their materials recycled with minimal effort. In both the electronics and textile industries, products are becoming increasingly complicated, using a wider range of elements and materials that ultimately hinders their ability to be reused or recycled at the end of their life as a product.

Through the passage of new rules aiming to achieve a circular economy, the EU and others can directly contribute to a broad swath of SDGs linked to material consumption and waste production. The European Commission’s press release also notes that the legislation aims to halt both food waste and marine litter, in close alignment with SDG targets 12.3 on food waste and 14.1 on marine pollution. [EU Press Release] [Circular Economy Action Plan] [European Waste Hierarchy] [OECD Work on EPR]

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