A circular economy in Europe: Will the targets work?

The European Commission is working on a new set of regulations for packaging, product design and waste. But is the current approach to EU-wide recycling targets working?

EU countries are set the same legally binding recycling rates, while energy targets vary according to a state’s circumstances
EU countries are set the same legally binding recycling rates, while energy targets vary according to a state’s circumstances
  • Updated: 04 September, 2015
  • Author: Gavin Miller, ICE Policy Manager

While this Circular Economy Package is in the public consultation stage, indications are that for waste the focus will largely be on increasing recycling targets to 70% household waste and 80% of packaging material alongside a ban on sending recyclates to landfill.

One target for waste

Such targets clearly have an environmental purpose – it is important to encourage recycling as far as possible and setting additional targets can help galvanize action and help improve the direction of travel.

It seems member states will not be set their own, individual goals. In a similar structure to the existing 2020 targets, each country will the same – legally binding – target of 70% recycling of waste by 2030, which is potentially a big problem.

According to Eurostat, in 2013 the household recycling and composting rate for the EU as a whole stood at 42%. The rate had been increasing at around 1 to 1.5% per annum so the target of 50% by 2020 should (just) be met. To reach the proposed 2030 target of 70% the average would have to increase to 2% a year from 2020, which is achievable, at least in theory.

The EU average masks a wide gap between countries. Some states like Germany and the Netherlands achieve over 60%; others like Romania are as low as 3%. In fact, based on 2013 figures, it is likely that around half of the 28 states – possibly including the UK – will undershoot 50% by 2020.

State-by-state model

A more effective way of improving rates would be to set individual targets for each member state – taking into account the starting position, potential and economic performance. While each target could be set at a level which stretches them, it should also be realistically achievable. Some would be set at below the overall target but some would be over, and so the aggregate would still reach 70%.

The EU target for energy from renewables provides a good model. The overall European target is 20% but each member state has its own, legally binding, goal that takes into account their country’s circumstances.

Sweden, which generated 39% of its energy from renewables in 2004, was set a target of 49% for 2020 while the UK, which produced only 1% in 2004, was set a 15% target. Across the continent, renewable energy consumption should increase from 8% to 20% and based on recent data is on track to being met.

Looking at progress to the 2020 targets, it seems futile to extend the blanket, binding targets method to 2030. Indeed, the setting of such targets can have the opposite affect – if the goal is impossible, there is no point in trying and as such no improvements are made.