November 21 to 29, 2020 is European Week for Waste Reduction! In celebration, we are republishing a previous Earth.Org piece detailing how the EU is working to reduce waste. In early March, the EU released its Circular Economy Action Plan which requires manufacturers to make products that last longer and are easier to repair, use and recycle. Taking effect in 2021, the plan is a part of the EU’s targets to become a climate-neutral economy by 2050 as outlined in its New Green Deal. How will the average consumer be affected by this plan?

The climate crisis has no borders; it affects everyone at all levels. Most Europeans agree with this. A recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2019 showed that 95% agree that environmental protection is important, while 91% believe that climate change is a serious problem and protective legislation is required. Policies aimed at reducing plastic waste were also widely supported. In response to this support for environmental protection, the EU Commission signalled The European Green Deal in the same month as the Eurobarometer survey. 

The EU says that global consumption of materials such as biomass, fossil fuels, metals and minerals is expected to double in the next 40 years. 

This deal aims to reset the EU’s commitments on climate change, whilst also serving as their new economic growth strategy. One of the main targets outlined in the Deal is for the EU’s economy to become climate-neutral by 2050, and the Commission hopes to achieve this through legally binding laws, social improvements, and a shift in economic growth thinking. 

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Soon after, the Commission released its proposal for the first European Climate Law which aims to write into law the goal set out in the European Green Deal- to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. With this law, all member states are required to set measures to meet this target, monitor their progress, and make the changes permanent. Hence the EU Circular Economy Action Plan was born.

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is based on the principles of doing away with waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. Under the ‘Circular Electronics Initiative’, the plan will require manufacturers of products like smartphones, tablets, laptops and other electronics to use designs and materials that allow for easy repairs, such as the use of screws instead of glue, and to include parts that are more recyclable, repairable and durable. These standards already exist for some items manufactured within the EU, like dishwashers, televisions and washing machines. 

The plan also attempts to tackle ‘throwaway culture’, by preventing planned obsolescence of products; companies like Apple have admitted intentionally making goods with a shorter lifespan to force consumers to buy a new model. Other initiatives include creating a universal charger that fits all brands of phones and an EU-wide trade-in scheme for electronics. These policies will reduce consumption of raw materials and prolong the lifetime of products. 

Consumers can also expect to receive information at the point of sale regarding a product’s lifespan, where to receive repair services, and repair manuals. This aims to address the ‘right to repair’ movement, a campaign advocating for consumers to fix their electronic items themselves and breaking the monopoly that manufacturers have over repair parts where fixing a broken part is extremely expensive or only available at the brand’s authorised outlets.

Consumers will also start to see restrictions on products that include microplastics, for example, personal care products, paints, detergents, and more. Labels will be placed on products that unintentionally release microplastics, such as tyres and woven polyester textiles, to empower consumers to make more environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. Additionally, plastic products will be required to be composed of a set amount of recycled content. 

In 2017, Europeans on average generated 172kg of packaging waste each, with 116kg being recycled. The plan will require all packaging to be reusable and reduce the complexity of materials so that it is easier to recycle by 2030. Often products are encased in packaging that has multiple layers of plastic, making it extremely difficult to recycle and ending up in landfills or incinerators. While there are options to recycle multi-layered packaged products, most of these are limited in scope or use too much energy. Sorting of these plastics becomes too complex for existing systems and the only viable solution is to reduce the material complexity at the source. 

A study says that manufacturing firms in the EU spend on average about 40% on materials; this ‘closed loop’ model can increase their profitability. 

The plan also bans the destruction of unsold durable goods, likely targeting designer brands and luxury goods, such as Burberry, which has burned £90 million of merchandise over the past five years to prevent them being stolen or sold cheaply. This change follows in the footsteps of France’s recent and similar law

Understanding the difficulty a lot of businesses and countries will likely face in adhering to this plan, the EU has pledged to provide financial and non-financial support to those who need it. 

A study estimates that applying circular economy principles across the EU may increase EU GDP by an additional 0.5% by 2030 creating around 700 000 new jobs, showing that the advantages of adopting a circular economy are not just environmental. 

The EU is making excellent strides in moving towards a circular economy, reducing intensity of resource use, promoting the use of recycled and secondary materials, and the empowerment of eco-conscious consumers. Aside from environmental benefits, consumers will enjoy more durable, reliable and protected products. The targets and legislative proposals in this action plan will need to be approved by the Members of the European Parliament before going into effect, but with increasing pressure from EU citizens, it will likely be approved. Parts of the legislation will come into effect this year and 2021.

Asia would benefit from policies such as the EU Circular Economy Plan. Rapid development and population growth has put immense pressure on the continent’s infrastructure. By 2050, the population is expected to rise to 5.3 billion people, however, as many Asian countries work to grow their economies and lift their people out of poverty, it is likely that this will not be the continent’s priority for many years to come. 

Featured image by: Klaas Brumann