A resource revolution? Don’t hold your breath

The long-awaited new circular economy package has been published, so how about a reality check– regarding the current status of waste and recycling, the much-bespoken ‘first half of the circle’, how it fits into overall EU policy, and what the rather gloomy outcome is.

By Lydia Heida

Let’s first take a step back to look at the new circular economy package from a macro perspective. In the past months, one report after the other has been published about the current status of European waste and recycling and its legislation. Sometimes these reports show the nuisance that it brings, such as the one about inconsistencies in packaging recycling data from EU member states.

Sometimes a report gives a truly shocking insight. EnviCrimeNet recently discussed at its annual meeting – attended by experts from Europol, the European Commission and 16 European countries – the first report of the Intelligence Project on Environmental Crime.

Organized crime

It states that the waste industry, as one of the biggest European business areas, is infiltrated by organised crime that gains as much money out of this as with drugs trafficking. The report presents a very long list of things that need to be done to improve the situation.

Other reports, such as the one of CWIT which revealed that 4.7 million tonnes of e-waste is wrongfully or illegally traded in the EU, have similar long to-do lists.

So it can be safely concluded that many aspects of EU waste and recycling legislation and implementation are still in their infancy. Now, one of the best parts of the new circular economy package is the increased focus on the ‘first half of the circle’ – repair and reuse.

Repair and reuse

But this part of our European economy is in such a shambles that a to-do list to improve the situation could pave the road from Brussels to Berlin. Repair is not an option any more for most of the products that we use nowadays.

An employee of Hewlett-Packard, a company that sells around 170,000 PC systems, 3,500 servers and 143,000 printers on average per day, recently told me that “repairs are only done within the first two years of a product’s lifetime, the warranty period, since it is more expensive to send an item to the repair service than it is to buy a new one”.

This is illustrative of the current state of being when it comes to repair and re-use. Since the EU has already more than enough on its plate, putting even more on it is like force-feeding a 12-course meal to a toddler.

€1 trillion budget

Next. In previous columns, RWW has revealed that the two largest EU financial institutions and the biggest research programme are spending merely millions of their multi-billion budgets on recycling projects. To put this in a broader perspective, the EU has a whopping €1 trillion budget for the 2014-2020 period, the multiannual financial framework (MFF).

Around 37.6% of this budget, €407.55 billion, is dedicated to, no, not the circular economy, but to agriculture. To be specific, the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund will receive €309.35 billion, and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development is good for another €98.2 billion.

This is somehow a logical consequence of EU policies. As we have already seen, in the 10 policy priorities of the Juncker commission, not a word was mentioned about the circular economy. I have also checked the 12 highlights of the MFF. Again, no reference to the circular economy.


Then, I looked at the more than 40 programmes to which the MFF dedicates money. Well, one must praise the EU for being consistent, because none mentions the circular economy. There is an asylum and migration fund, an internal security fund, one for IT systems, one for health, and one for a creative Europe, but none for the circular economy.

The EU is like a tanker that is stuck on a certain course, with the circular economy somewhere far on the horizon. The new package might be a point in the right direction, if the winds of democracy won’t change.

But creating a circular economy will only become possible if it is a true policy priority, with the appropriate amount of money allocated to it. Otherwise, the new package will be a parcel full of empty words for a very long time.

Published: December 2015 in Recycling & Waste World.

From April 2015 to September 2017, I wrote a monthly column about Europe’s waste and recycling sectors for Recycling & Waste World (UK). I discovered, among others, that the EU is spending only a sliver of their multi-billion euro budget on recycling projects. This stands in sharp contrast to ambitious plans of creating a circular economy in the EU, which requires much more funding.


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