EU Circular Economy Package: Looking Beyond Recycling Rates

The EU Commission’s much-anticipated revised circular economy package was announced yesterday at a press conference in Brussels, where First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Vice-President Jyrki Katainen highlighted some of the key aspects of the package. Despite some negative sentiment towards lower than expected target recycling rates, a first glance reflection is that the package represents a positive step forward for circular adoption in Europe.

Jyrki Katainen
Jyrki Katainen

Firstly, a couple of disclaimers. The details of the package still need to be scrutinised and further positive and negative aspects will surely emerge. It’s worth noting that there is a significant legislative process to go through and significant alterations could be made during that process.

An early point of contention in relation to the new circular economy package is the 65% recycling rates target, which is 5% lower than the proposals in the scrapped version from earlier this year.

Setting aside the questions about the value of hard targets and their effectiveness as a policy mechanism, the biggest problem with over-emphasising target percentages is that recycling is a relatively small part of the circular economy picture.

The circular economy is a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. It’s a different global economic model that decouples economic growth from the consumption of finite materials.

“[circular economy] is a profound transform of the way our entire economy works.”

Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the EU Commission

In contrast, recycling practices have most been developed to minimise the damage of waste outputs. On the very popular “butterfly diagram”, recycling is the outermost loop, a last resort where small amounts of value are regained compared against the remanufacturing, repair and reuse cycles.

Indeed, the ‘success’ stories of recycling are often as much about slowing down the linear economy as opposed to transitioning to a new model. For example, paper recycling rates are very high, but the quality of the paper fibres gets reduced each time, limiting the number of cycles in paper to 2-5 (depending on the grade). In the case of PET plastic bottle, it is rarely possible to re-utilise the material for a similar function, instead it is recycled in lower grade products, like carpets.

Flickr CC Licenced; Roland Tanglao
Flickr CC Licenced; Roland Tanglao

The scale of recycling could theoretically be significantly increased without having a significant impact on material usage, consumption patterns or on the way that the economy works.

Instead, what is truly required is a re-thinking of how we design and how we think. At yesterday’s press conference, Timmermans aptly described the circular economy as “profound transformation of the way our entire economy works”.

The package doesn’t cover the full scope of policy opportunities for enabling the development of a circular economy, but there are plenty of positives, including specific actions on food waste, developing a framework for plastics, regulation on fertilisers, the promotion of repairability and durability in design and more.

The discussion of the EU package proposals will continue through the first half of 2016 and probably beyond. Assuming that this package makes it into legislation, the circular economy concept’s ultimate success in European policy will depend upon yesterday’s announcements being the beginning of an iterative process; where new initiatives are adopted and old ones are adjusted to foster the right conditions for Europe to seize the €1.8 trillion potential benefit identified in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent Growth Within report.

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Seb Egerton-Read

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website's topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]