Moves away from a linear approach to the economy towards one where resources can be used in a more sustainable way are gaining pace, says Paul Clarke.

The concept of the Circular Economy is by no means new. To take just one example, it was at the heart of the UK Government's 2013 report Prevention Is Better than Cure: The Role of Waste Prevention in Moving to a More Resource Efficient Economy. That report called for a move away from a linear approach (“make, use and dispose”) towards one where products, and the materials they contain, are valued differently, creating a more robust, circular, economy in the process. The report introduced the newly launched Waste Prevention Programme for England, setting out ways in which businesses could make savings by cutting waste and managing resources.

A significant move forward with regard to the Circular Economy came, towards the end of 2015, not from the UK but the European Commission, which issued a whole package of measures including several proposals for legislative action.

Closing the loop

Closing the Loop – An EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy sets out the details of the Commission's plans for resources to be used in a more sustainable way. This paper argues that moving away from a linear approach makes sense both environmentally and in terms of boosting the EU's competitiveness. “Action on the Circular Economy ties in closely with key EU priorities, including jobs and growth, the investment agenda, climate and energy, the social agenda and industrial innovation, and with global efforts on sustainable development,” the Commission states.

The action plan explains why a move towards a more sustainable economic model will have to move the focus away from what happens to a product at the end of its useful life to an examination of how every stage — from design, to production, to consumption and finally to waste management — must play its part in producing improved, longer-lasting, repairable and/or recyclable products.

Managing waste

Only around 40% of the waste produced by EU households is recycled, and the Commission recognises that much of its existing legislation is failing to meet the standards that will be needed in the Circular Economy. Its 2015 package therefore includes a set of proposals to radically reform EU laws covering areas ranging from landfill to disposing of waste batteries. The revised waste proposals also include increased recycling targets for packaging materials, which will reinforce the targets on municipal waste and improve the management of packaging waste in the commercial and industrial sectors.

Specifically, the Commission has issued proposals to amend:

The revised targets for waste management contained in the six amended directives are interconnected but what follows is a brief summary of the main points of each proposal. The plans aim to extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste policy

The amendment to the EU's Waste Directive lays down that, by 2025, preparation for reuse and the recycling of municipal waste must be increased to a minimum of 60% by weight. By 2030, that figure must rise to a minimum of 65%. This amended directive also requires Member States to reduce the generation of food waste in primary production, in processing and manufacturing, in retail and other distribution of food, in restaurants and food services as well as in households.


In 2013, total waste generation in the EU amounted to approximately 2.5 billion tonnes, of which 1.6 billion tonnes were not reused or recycled and were therefore lost to the European economy. It is estimated that an additional 600 million tonnes could be recycled or reused. The main targets set out in the proposal are:

  • to increase the preparing for reuse and recycling target for municipal waste to 65% by 2030

  • a ban on landfilling of separately collected waste

  • the gradual limitation of the landfilling of municipal waste to 10% by the same date.

Packaging waste

The Commission accepts that clear environmental, economic and social benefits would be derived from further increasing the targets laid down in the EU's original Packaging Waste Directive (94/62/EC). Through a progressive increase of the existing targets on preparing for reuse and recycling of packaging waste, it should be possible to ensure that economically valuable waste materials are progressively and effectively recovered through proper waste management and in line with the waste hierarchy.

By no later than 31 December 2025, a minimum of 65% by weight of all packaging waste must be prepared for reuse and recycled. In addition, and by no later than 31 December 2030, that minimum must increase to 75%.

Special waste

The final proposal in the package amends three existing directives on special categories of waste: end-of-life vehicles (ELVs); batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators; and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The Commission wants to see economic incentives for producers to put greener products on the market and support recovery and recycling schemes in respect of these products.

Putting cash behind the policies

In order to ensure that the ambitious proposals it has put forward are taken up by the Member States, the Commission has earmarked considerable funds for work in this area. The EU's main R&D programme, Horizon 2020, for example, includes in its 2016/2017 budget over €650 million for innovative demonstration projects that support the objectives of the circular economy and industrial competitiveness in the EU in a wide range of industrial and service activities, including process industries, manufacturing, and new business models. In addition, the Commission has said that €5.5 billion from the EU Structural Funds, which support projects in the Member States, will be spent on projects linked to the Circular Economy.

Fighting planned obsolescence

As well as the initiatives outlined above, the Commission plans to support projects in a number of areas that will aim at supporting more repairable products. These will include, starting in 2016, inserting measures into the Ecodesign working plan to promote reparability, durability and recyclability of products, in addition to energy efficiency.

What happens next?

The Commissioner responsible for sustainable development, Frans Timmermans, said: “By rethinking the way we produce, work and buy we can generate new opportunities and create new jobs. With this package, we are delivering the comprehensive framework that will truly enable this change to happen. It sets a credible and ambitious path for better waste management in Europe with supportive actions that cover the full product cycle. This mix of smart regulation and incentives at EU level will help businesses and consumers, as well as national and local authorities, to drive this transformation.”

The linked proposals will come into effect 18 months after they have been adopted by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. Given the pace at which legislation moves through the EU adoption process this probably means that the UK and other Member States will have to implement them by early 2018.

Last reviewed 13 January 2016