Precisely one year ago, the European Commission unveiled its master plan to transform our toxic relationship with the Earth and its limited resources.
The announcement coincided with the reckoning of the looming Covid-19 crisis and of the need to make our economies more resilient to future shocks. The EU’s so-called Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) is meant to be a first step in that direction.
To celebrate the first anniversary of the strategy, the EEB has assessed the main measures put forward so far by the Commission as part of its action plan, highlighting successes and failures as well as challenges ahead.
The European Parliament wants to take the Commission’s CEAP a step forward and are calling for targets to reduce resource use by 2030, bringing EU consumption within planetary boundaries by 2050. If taken up by the Commission and member states, this could be an unprecedented move helping Europe transition to a more resilient and less wasteful economy.
In the CEAP, the Commission promised a Sustainable Products Initiative (SPI) to make sustainable products the norm and the default choice for consumers, while phasing out products that are damaging to the environment. This means that all products placed on the market should be free of toxic substances posing a risk to human health and the environment, and should come with a product passport and information scheme disclosing their sustainability performance. Practices such as premature obsolescence, the destruction of unsold goods, single use solutions should also be banned, while transparency on social and environmental standards should underpin the entire value chain.
Batteries that don’t cost the Earth
As promised, the Commission published a proposal to make durable, repairable, and recyclable batteries the norm. From transport to energy storage and electronic devices, the strategy has the potential to reduce the environmental impact and downside risks of our increasingly electrified and digital economy.
The proposal is now being discussed separately by national governments and by the Parliament, which are expected to give their opinion this year. An ambitious position in the Council and Parliament may to turn the existing Batteries Directive into a more comprehensive and binding regulation.
The Commission promised to green the textile industry and is expected to publish a strategy later this year after a public consultation process this spring. EU officials will need to tackle the environmental and social impacts of the textile industry at the design, production, use, and end-of-life phases. This strategy is a golden opportunity to end the era of unchecked overproduction of clothing and fashion products.
This means we need measures that support an absolute reduction in production and demand for textiles. Recycling is simply not enough anymore.
Right to Repair
From smartphones to laptops, the Commission wants to introduce requirements obliging manufacturers to make their products more easily repairable by design – as it did for a host of home appliances last year. Requirements for mobile phones and computers are currently being examined in the context of the Ecodesign Directive. Alongside these two iconic product groups, new studies have been launched to investigate the impact of a common charger for electronic devices.
On a negative note, the Commission failed to deliver its commitment to regulate printers. Citing lack of human resources, the Commission is pursuing a delayed draft voluntary agreement which fails to comprehensively address key aspects like obsolescence and cartridge waste.
The Commission has started a legislative procedure to make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030. However, national guidelines on how to implement producer responsibility schemes for packaging waste (and other products), which were expected in 2020, are still yet to be published.
The Commission is also expected to target the issue of ‘invisible plastic pollution’ in the coming months, with the adoption of a restriction of intentionally added microplastics by 2021.
Next on the agenda will be the publication of guidelines for the national implementation of the Single-Use Plastic Directive, which has banned several items including straws and cutlery. Industry pressure to exempt products such as viscose wipes and cellophane straws threaten to undermine the legislation.The Commission is also set to clarify rules for biobased and biodegradable plastics.
The Commission is expected to introduce legislation in 2021 to make green claims more reliable including mandating the use of a harmonized Life Cycle Assessment method when communicating about specific environmental impacts such as carbon emissions. A legislative proposal to amend the EU’s consumer law is also expected in 2021, tackling issues such as rules on product labelling at the point of sale and possibly banning obsolescence..
Waste prevention and recycling
Many EU countries have missed their 2020 targets for recycling, while waste generation was on the rise in 2019. In the CEAP, the Commission promised to come up with a proposal for waste prevention targets by 2022, but this looks increasingly unlikely. Such targets are badly needed, and they are needed now.
A Built Environment strategy
The CEAP promised a Sustainable Built Environment strategy to address the enormous waste of resources needed to build the infrastructure for our everyday lives, from housing and public spaces to roads. This week, we learned that the Commission is considering dropping or delaying the publication of this strategy – a decision that could have devastating implications for the European Green Deal.
The world needs cooperation and positive examples to build a more resilient and circular economy. For this reason, the Commission is in a driving seat of a Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency (GACERE). Despite being an important initiative, it remains to be seen if and how inclusive it will be, and whether civil society organisations will be given a meaningful role.
The EU Ecolabel
The Commission is expected to adopt the EU Ecolabel for Retail Financial Products by the end of 2021. The label would reward the greenest retail financial products on the market. A new draft proposal presented for discussion at the EU Ecolabelling Board has significantly improved the criteria that investment funds or saving accounts will have to meet in order to qualify for the label. This is a first step in the right direction to ensure financial flows contribute to a low carbon and circular economy, while protecting consumers against greenwashing.