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Circular Economy: Stakeholders Call for More Recycling and Extended Product Durability

Hong Kong traders with business interests in the EU may like to know that stakeholders have urged the European Commission to allow for increased recycling and extended product life, as part of its circular economy strategy, through the adoption of measures designed to promote resource efficiency.

Discussions on the circular economy strategy were held at a meeting of the EU’s Environment Council on 4 March 2016, where a number of environmental ministers asked the European Commission to focus on product design rules aimed at durability, reparability, and reusability.

Previous to that, the European Commission discussed its proposed circular economy strategy on 29 February 2016, at a Competitiveness Council meeting. It was clarified during that meeting that the strategy needs to include a detailed impact analysis on the competitiveness of companies and industries. Should such focus result in new legislative developments, Hong Kong exporters of any such products will very likely be impacted.

Several EU ministers highlighted the challenge and necessity of fitting a circular economy approach into EU policies on chemicals. Additionally, most Member States’ ministers attending the meeting emphasised the need to foster innovation in any proposed action plan, by allowing for new business models.

Earlier, on 23 February 2016, it was reported that major furniture chain IKEA demanded that the EU must not classify certain materials as waste, in an effort towards the increase of reuse and recycling. Steve Howard, the company’s chief sustainability officer, plans to challenge the consumer perception that if products are affordable they must also be disposable.

The Scandinavian company believes that it is its obligation, as a business, to ensure that proper channels are available for consumers to resell and recycle products they no longer need. According to IKEA representatives, improved harmonisation and increased certainty concerning recycling rules in the EU will also be useful in bringing material back into its own production line.

The large construction company “Interserve” also urged for a harmonised EU framework for waste and reuse, which would help streamline moving secondary resources across borders.

EU Member States have also supported the importance of policies designed to promote a European market for secondary raw materials. Germany, France, Italy and Spain have already agreed that ecodesign measures should be a priority to promote resource efficiency.

Spain suggested that the Environment Council should request the Commission to revise the Ecodesign Directive and to focus more on energy efficiency. According to France and Germany, the circular economy action plan should set out a clearer strategy for product resource efficiency, which should include a plan on environmental labelling of products. The two Member States also asked the Commission to address the issue of “built-in obsolescence”, which is the expressly planned shortening of the life span of a product.

Various other measures were discussed, in particular, stronger quality requirements for plastic recycling, green public procurement, policies to combat marine litter, and actions to tackle the issue of micro-plastics in cosmetics.

On a related note, on 15 February 2016, Germany’s central federal authority on environmental matters, the UBA, published a study on the service life of products. The study, which was conducted by the sustainability consultancy Öko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University, revealed that the service life of electrical devices is decreasing.

According to the UBA, minimum requirements on the durability and quality of products should therefore be considered, and consumers should be encouraged to use products for longer periods of time.

The study found that functional electrical and electronic appliances are replaced mainly due to the consumer’s desire to always possess an ever better appliance. The share of household devices that had to be replaced due to a defect increased from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2013. A survey conducted as part of the study revealed that a third of the respondents were unhappy with the durability of their products.

The study also discovered that, from an environmental perspective, products designed for a longer life perform better than short-life products in all impact categories. However, the study did not find any evidence of built-in obsolescence. Nonetheless, the short innovation cycle of producers could negatively impact on the quality of a product. For example, some devices, instead of being systematically tested, are only checked for their known weak points, in order to reduce the length of the testing cycle.

UBA also looked at the lack of transparency relating to how long a product is expected to be functional. According to the UBA, price is not always a reliable indicator for the durability of a product. Finally, although the UBA recommends that products have a design which allows repair work in order to extend their durability, it indicated that consumers ultimately have the responsibility to refrain from replacing devices that are still fully functioning.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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