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Herwart Wilms: That all-important first step has already been taken as the upper echelons of the EU institutions have at last recognised the true significance of the circular economy and made it a principle of action for the future. This future must be climate neutral. The current Covid-19 pandemic changes nothing here. Sooner or later, the virus will either disappear or be overcome; whenever this happens, climate change will still be the most urgent problem that we will have to face. Which means the EU will not give up this objective. One thing is certain: fully closed production cycles must be set up for this goal to be achieved. In other words: it cannot be achieved without the recycling sector.
Herwart Wilms, REMONDIS Managing Director
Herwart Wilms: The Action Plan particularly emphasises the fact that there will be regulations for sustainable products and production processes to promote a “circular design” for all products and their packaging. This means using fewer primary natural resources and putting priority on ensuring products can be reused and repaired. As products are generally sold in other countries as well and must also be recycled, the principle of ‘ecodesign’ or ‘design for recycling’ – something REMONDIS has been calling for for many years now – will automatically have a positive impact and create growth in all member states. And I mean growth in employment here as well as economic growth. Put in a nutshell: products that are made with recycled raw materials and are designed so they can be recycled will be treated better than those that aren’t. The reason for this is because they have a better environmental footprint.
Herwart Wilms: Exactly! This is one of the most important prerequisites if material life cycles are to be closed. This, in turn, will strengthen the demand for recycled raw materials. The Commission is quite rightly planning to strengthen the market for recycled raw materials and is currently looking at the possibility of prescribing a minimum recycled content for certain products. We believe that this is a good approach as making the use of recycled materials mandatory by introducing an obligatory “substitution rate” will increase demand for recycled raw materials. It will also create a market for materials that some European regions are still sending to landfill at the moment. Europe, which has so few natural resources of its own, will become less dependent on raw material imports and add considerable value to its economy.
Herwart Wilms: The Resources Commission at the German Environment Agency has already drawn up some specific ideas. Firstly, it suggests that any technical obstacles, which may make it difficult for obligatory minimum recycled content requirements to be introduced, should be examined. A minimum recycled content or “substitution rate” should then be established over the long term. It proposes that this rate should be the ratio between the recycled raw materials used and the total amount of materials used. The overall goal must be to implement this substitution rate at product level rather than restrict it to individual products. Respective mandatory minimum recycled content requirements should then be set for product groups. These should be based on economic and environmental factors and be continuously adapted to changing conditions.
Herwart Wilms: One of the central measures being planned by the Commission is to gradually introduce compulsory green procurement criteria. If the EU makes it obligatory for public procurement officials across Europe to prioritise the purchase of products that are not only recyclable but have been manufactured using recyclates as well, then this is a paradigm shift that would have a considerable positive impact both on growth and on our climate. Public authorities, which spend around 2 billion euros on products and services across Europe every year (making up 14% of the EU’s gross domestic product), would quite rightly be seen as being an influential market player spearheading the creation of a sustainable circular economy. By introducing sectoral legislation and setting mandatory green procurement criteria for resource and carbon-relevant industries, public authorities can drive forward this transition by being “Public Buyers for Climate and Environment”. It is not just up to councils, though. We – the consumer – and industrial businesses must also be empowered to recognise the difference.
Herwart Wilms: Both consumers and public and industrial buyers must be able to recognise the difference between bad products, i.e. those that could potentially harm the environment, and good products, i.e. those that have been sustainably produced with as high a recycled content as possible. For this reason, the Commission is considering revising the ecolabel as an additional supportive measure. REMONDIS, by the way, has been calling for such a label for three years now. We have already put forward our own suggestion for an ecodesign label. This uses the well-known traffic light labelling system and makes the raw material efficiency level of a product clear to everyone immediately.
Herwart Wilms, REMONDIS Managing Director
Herwart Wilms: There are but we believe they may have overshot the mark here and are in danger of creating yet another mountain of red tape. The Circular Economy Action Plan aims to improve the availability of information about the products sold in the EU. So far, so good. The Commission has proposed introducing digital passports that should provide information about the origin and composition of a product as well as to what extent it can be repaired and dismantled and how it should be handled when it reaches the end of its useful life. This aims to make it easier for consumers to make sustainable purchases. However, there is not only a danger here of having disproportionately high information costs. A digital passport also creates an unnecessarily large obstacle, as it can’t simply be read on site at the shops and presumes that consumers are prepared to actively gather information about a product beforehand. REMONDIS believes a product label that provides information about a product’s sustainability and recyclability levels using the easy-to-understand traffic light labelling system is a more suitable solution to enable consumers to make sensible purchase decisions.
One example of what a universal recycling label could look like. It would make it easier for consumers to buy more sustainable products
Herwart Wilms: One thing we definitely need to have is a strict ban on untreated municipal waste being sent to landfill. Landfilled organic waste is a big producer of methane gas, which is 24 times more damaging to our climate than CO2. Germany has already shown how this can be done. It has been illegal to send untreated municipal waste to landfill here since 2005. Other countries have also been able to reduce the amount of their landfilled municipal waste to under 1% over the last few years. Unfortunately, this is not the case across the whole of the EU. In 2018, the share of landfilled municipal waste in Romania, for example, lay at over 70%. The EU average is 20%. Just taking Germany as an example, it can be seen that it is indeed possible to reduce the amount landfilled to below 1%. The EU has not acted quickly or systematically enough in this matter to make the most of the positive impact that recycling has on combating climate change. The European Green Deal provides the perfect opportunity here to harmonise the EU’s standards in this area. If effective efforts are to be made to tackle climate change, then it is essential that no waste be sent untreated to landfill. REMONDIS is calling for a Europe-wide landfill ban for untreated municipal waste to be added to the Green Deal or as an amendment to the Waste Framework Directive. Just two immediate positive side-effects of such a mandatory measure would be the creation of jobs and an increase in material recovery rates. It is precisely this kind of ‘low-hanging fruit’ that the Green Deal needs – both to make it a success and to underline its credibility.
Herwart Wilms: One thing that we really need to see is fair competition between all market players. The transition from a linear to a circular economy not only requires society as a whole to rethink the way they lead their lives, it also means large investments. The companies involved in restructuring the economic system will have to carry out extensive research and development work and set up the infrastructure needed. They will only be able to invest the large sums of money required if they know there is a high level of investment security. Which is why all of the plans in the Green Deal must ensure competitive neutrality. By the way, this also very much applies to the measures being taken to promote alternative fuels as they are key to carbon-neutral logistics. Simply for technical and physical reasons, we should not be limiting ourselves to just one form of fuel for the future, such as e-mobility. If the transition is to succeed, then we must remain open and unbiased and be smart about the way we use the existing infrastructure. The high levels of investment for the future can only be guaranteed once it is finally clear what the best mix of climate-friendly and most efficient technologies actually is.