The European Parliament votes for closing the loop

In amongst a packed European Parliament (EP) plenary session in Strasbourg this week, MEPs found time to vote on Thursday (9 July) on their position on the circular economy. Thanks to pressure from NGOs and individual citizens (including those who responded to QCEA’s action alert!), the Parliament’s report was a strong – if not perfect – definition of an ambitious circular economy. After the European Commission withdrew their original circular economy proposals in late 2014, they promised to develop more ambitious legislation by the end of 2015, which they are currently working on. The Parliament’s environment committee took the opportunity of this delay in the legislative procedure to outline their demands for the new measures. Sirpa Pietikäinen’s strong report passed the environment committee in June, and therefore moved to the next step.

Sirpa Pietikäinen, rapporteur for the report Photo credit: www.sirpapietikainen.net

Sirpa Pietikäinen, rapporteur for the report. Photo credit: http://www.sirpapietikainen.net

So what happened this week? The Parliament officially backed binding recycling targets of 70% by 2030, as proposed in last July’s withdrawn proposal, putting pressure on the Commission not to dilute these targets, as many fear they might. The EP report includes measures to cut back on incineration and landfill, by banning burning of recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2020, removing subsidies, and gradually implementing reductions on landfill, which will become a complete ban by 2030. The report also increased the ambition of the Commission’s original proposal regarding tackling marine litter, calling for a 50% reduction by 2025, rather than 30% by 2030.

The EP report also addresses resource consumption, proposing legally-binding indicators to measure our use of land, materials, water, and carbon by 2018. These measures represent the first step in reducing our environmental impact – before it can be reduced, we must quantify the extent of our effects. The Parliament even had the courage to tackle planned obsolescence – in which a producer deliberately limits the lifetime of products so that consumers have to buy replacements. The EP called for design requirements to produce more durable and repairable products.

There was even a pleasant surprise at the plenary stage, as the report’s recommendations were strengthened. An amendment tabled by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) added a section calling on the Commission to require the retail food sector to distribute their unsold products to charity, similar to a law recently adopted in France.

However, there was some last minute horse-trading that weakened certain aspects of the Environment committee’s proposals. Another EPP amendment simply removed the word “binding” before the 30% resource productivity target, reducing it to a voluntary measure. This voluntary measure can be considered useless since there is no impetus for reluctant companies to take action. Other amendments removed or attenuated ambitious sections on lower taxation for repair services, higher taxes for resource-intensive products, and committing to energy-neutral building by 2050. One paragraph had everything of substance removed, leaving only the vague observation “that it is crucial to raise consumers’ awareness and increase their proactive role;” where before it had called for product information to be provided to citizens and businesses, enabling better decisions on repair or recycling.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg Photo credit: European Union 2013 - European Parliament. Licensed under a Creative Commons license)

The European Parliament in Strasbourg
Photo credit: European Union 2013 – European Parliament. Licensed under a Creative Commons license)

One important amendment called for reuse targets, separate from those for recycling. However, despite the benefits of separate reuse targets (such as cutting resource use, and creating sustainable jobs), and their success in France, Flanders and Spain, it was voted down. This may be because it was tabled by two of the parliament’s fringe political groups, the Greens-European Free Alliance working with Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). So some positive changes were made to the report, some positive paragraphs were removed, and some good amendments weren’t passed (along with a lot of less positive ones). Compromise is the lifeblood of a parliamentary democracy, and although there were some setbacks on this report, environmental campaigners can be pleased with the compromise. On the whole, the report was substantially unchanged from the environment committee’s ambitious iteration, suggesting that of the three major European institutions (the Commission, the Council and the Parliament), the Parliament is the most ambitious when it comes to the circular economy.

The backing of the EP is a positive sign, and the passage of this robust report can be considered a victory. However, it is worth remembering that the European Commission is not bound by the contents of this report: it does not have to listen. On the other hand, the report does indicate to the European Commission what the European Parliament may require in order to pass their proposal as the Commission’s proposals will have to be approved by the same Parliament that has called for these ambitious measures. Under the ordinary legislative procedure, the European Parliament and Council of the European Union must jointly approve legislation once the Commission has proposed it. From outside the institutions, the report represents a very useful advocacy tool, and brings with it the support of a not inconsiderable ally in the push for resource efficient economy.

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