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Circular Economy Takes One Step to Fruition with European Parliament Vote

Hong Kong traders will recall that the European Commission adopted a controversial package of proposed measures, known as the Circular Economy, in December 2015. Since then, a particularly notable step was taken on 14 March 2017. On this date, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to demand that the share of waste in the EU should be recycled up to 70% by 2030, from the current figure of 44% under the draft legislation that has been proposed by the European Commission.

One MEP, Simona Bonafè, proclaimed on 14 March that “today, Parliament by a very large majority has shown that it believes in the transition towards a circular economy. We decided to restore the ambitious recycling and landfill targets in line with what the Commission had originally proposed in 2014”. She went on to say that "demand for raw materials by the world economy could increase by a further 50% in the next 15 years. In order to reverse this trend, we must adopt a circular development model which keeps materials and their value in circulation, the only solution able to keep together sustainability with economic growth".

According to MEP Bonafè, re-use, recycling and recovery are fast becoming the key words, so that waste will cease to be a problem and instead become a resource. By 2030, at least 70% by weight of so-called municipal waste (from households and businesses) should be recycled or prepared for re-use, (i.e. checked, cleaned or repaired), say MEPs. The European Commission had proposed 65%. For packaging materials, such as paper and cardboard, plastics, glass, metal and wood, MEPs demanded an 80% target for 2030, with interim 2025 targets for each material.

The issues voted through on 14 March 2017 represent the European Parliament’s negotiating position, ahead of negotiations with the EU Council of Member State ministers, which has yet to adopt its own position.

Regarding one of the materials mentioned above, namely plastics, the European Commission has already published a roadmap that is expected to result in the publication of an official Communication on a strategy on plastics in a circular economy during the fourth quarter of 2017. Its aim is to inform stakeholders about the Commission's work in order to allow them to provide feedback and to participate effectively in future consultation activities.

The EU should have, according to the Commission, a clear commitment to preparing a strategy that addresses the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain. The commitment should take into account their entire life-cycle, such as reuse, recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances of concern in certain plastics, and marine litter.

Hong Kong sellers should be alerted to the fact that an example of a key future action is the separate collection of plastic waste. The strategy on plastics intends to create synergies with other actions, such as on prevention of waste, ecodesign, and work on the interface between waste, chemicals and product policies, among others.

In Europe, over 40% of plastics are used in packaging, 20% in construction and less than 10% of plastics are used by the automotive industry. Hong Kong sellers will know that other common applications include furniture, household appliances, electrical and electronic goods and agricultural uses. The Commission’s new initiative on plastics aims to address three interrelated issues, namely:

  1. The high dependence on virgin fossil feedstock, with indications that more than 90% of plastics today are produced from fossil fuel feedstock.
  2. The low rate of recycling and reuse of plastics, whereby the reuse and recycling of end-of-life plastics remain very low, in particular when compared to other material streams. In 2014, the EU generated about 25 million tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste of which only 30% was recycled. One problem is that many plastic materials and products are designed to be thrown away; their design does not take into account resource efficiency aspects, such as durability, recyclability, reusability or reparability. Design facilitating recycling seems crucial, especially for single-use plastics.
  3. Significant leakage of plastics into the environment, where it is estimated that globally, in 2010, 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the environment, in particular in the oceans. New sources of plastic leakage, e.g. single-use plastic products and microplastics, are on the rise, posing new potential threats to animal and human health. Microplastics – used intentionally in products or generated during the products' life cycle, e.g. through car tyre wear or from washing clothes – are of particular concern as their small size (less than 5 mm) increases their potential toxicity.

Extended producer responsibility schemes would be an important factor to increase awareness. Better information should enable consumers to take purchasing decisions for more sustainable plastic products, including for disposable ones.

The Commission’s strategy will seek to improve the entire value chain using plastics to become more circular, resource-efficient and reduce its carbon footprint, in line with the climate and energy goals of the EU. In preparation of the strategy, a number of different actions will be explored with a view to identifying those with the strongest EU-added value and highest impact in tackling the problems identified.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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