By Dr Nick Murry, CSO at Ecodesk

“If we want to compete we have to get the most out of our resources, and that means recycling them back into productive use, not burying them in landfills as waste.” These were the words of EU Environment Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, as he unveiled a set of proposals aimed at reducing landfill waste across Europe, in July this year.

Once the dust had settled on the proposals, it became clear that UK businesses would struggle to meet the targets without effective cooperation throughout the value chain.  With targets for packaging waste re-use and recycling of 80% by 2030, packaging businesses in particular will need to innovate and collaborate with both customers and suppliers more than ever before.

The concept of a ‘circular economy’ isn’t new but it has recently become more main stream. At its core is an approach to waste reduction and resource efficiency that keeps resources in use for as long as possible, maximises their value in use and recovers as much as possible in terms of energy and materials at the end of each service life.

The can be little doubt that Potočnik is right to champion the circular economy, and to precipitate a move away from the linear landfill model, which is clearly no longer sustainable.  And he claims “it is not only possible, it is profitable,” something which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been promoting since its inception in 2010, when it published the first ever report series highlighting the economic rationale for the transition to a circular economy.

The proposed targets themselves are steep (see box below) but as the cost of raw materials continue to rise, along with the cost of commercial landfill, even the short term case for businesses to grasp the benefits of more circular business models is becoming more compelling. In the (not too distant) longer term, most manufacturing industries will be looking to have greater control over the resources they depend upon (or alternative ways of delivering their products and services), something we are already seeing in the automotive sector in relation to remanufacturing of car engines, for example.

While regulation is still some way off – the proposals now pass to the European Council and European Parliament – Potočnik‘s proposals undoubtedly present some immediate challenges for European businesses, but they will also stimulate opportunities for saving money and reducing risk, not just within the business but in partnership with suppliers.  Knowing where in the supply chain to look for efficiencies (‘hotspots’), and having the ability to target these, will become increasingly important, however.

According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report last year entitled Towards the Circular Economy, the market is likely to “systematically reward companies with an edge in circular business practices.” The report goes on to say that by embracing innovation these businesses have an opportunity to “win by scaling up the concept of the circular economy.” 

While understandably bullish, the report cites examples and suggests that in packaging in particular there will be rewards where waste streams of nutrients, heat, partially treated wastewater and CO2 can be converted back into high-value biological products or energy, using much shorter and more resilient supply chains. “The time to invest in building a circular economy is now,” it says.

The sentiment is supported by European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who said last month that “research and innovation are the keys to success for the Circular Economy.” The packaging industry has already started this journey with mushroom based boxes for example, but it has much further to go. So how can the industry evolve?

There’s no doubt that the EU proposals present some huge challenges. Researching and developing innovative products is not cheap and the development of packaging products designed for re-use to the specifications of particular customers will demand more effective ways of working together. Of course, packaging firms should not have to bear the brunt of the up-front investment but they do need to work with both customers and suppliers to drive innovation that will help businesses cut out waste at raw material level.  Without a more joined up approach, progress will inevitably be slow and any imposed targets on commercial waste will not be met.

While the European Parliament will no doubt take time debating and ratifying the proposals, there is an opportunity now to sow the seeds of a circular economy throughout the supply chain, potentially by proactively working with those suppliers that are prepared to innovate – as Potočnik added: “The 2030 targets that we propose are about taking action today to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and exploiting the business and job opportunities it offers.”

At the end of the day, moving to a circular economy will not be a choice, it will be a necessity. The question for business is how much longer they can afford to delay taking action.

The Key Proposals

  • Increase recycling/re-use of municipal waste to 70% in 2030;
  • Increase packaging waste recycling/re-use to 80% in 2030 with material-specific targets set to gradually increase between 2020 and 2030 (to reach 90 % for paper by 2025 and 60% for plastics, 80% for wood, 90% of ferrous metal, aluminium and glass by the end of 2030);
  • Phase out landfilling by 2025 for recyclable (including plastics, paper, metals, glass and bio-waste) waste in non-hazardous waste landfills – corresponding to a maximum landfilling rate of 25%;
  • Reduce food waste generation by 30% by 2025;
  • Introduce an early warning system to anticipate and avoid possible compliance difficulties;
  • Ensure full traceability of hazardous waste;
  • Increase the cost-effectiveness of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes by defining minimum conditions;
  • Simplify the reporting obligations and lighten obligations affecting SMEs;
  • Harmonise and streamline the calculation of the targets and improve the reliability of key statistics;
  • Improve the overall coherence by aligning definitions and removing obsolete legal requirements.


October 25th, 2014

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