Voices 30/07/2014

Europe's waste policy is becoming a "zero waste" policy

In order to achieve sustainability, countries must move towards the bottom right hand corner marked in green and as such decouple human development from natural resource use and environmental impacts.

Today not a single country falls within the "green box" of living well… and sustainably"

We need a growth model that enables the rich economies to move their economies to sustianable levels whilst improving living standards, and one that enables emerging economies to move across to the right without moving up to much.

We need to respect planetary boundaries. We need to accept the fact that natural resources are limited and that we are not using them in a sustainable way. Growing population and per capita consumption are challenging the very essence of our consumerism society. Our responsibility, individual and collective, is increasing and is incomparable to the responsibility mankind was facing a century ago. Change in unavoidable. Change in the way we produce, consume, in the way we live.

In Europe we recognised this in 2010 when we integrated resource efficiency as a flagship of the Europe 2020 Strategy. We made our objective to "decouple" growth from resource use and its impacts – this was our plan to get into the green zone – to achieve what the 7th Environmental Action Programme calls "Living well, within the Boundaries of the Planet". Environment policy was no longer to be seen as a constraint on growth. In fact our future growth would be determined by our ability to face resource constraints and get more value out of each tonne of materials, each hectare of land, each cubic meter of water, each joule of energy.

This makes sense both from an environmental and an economic point of view. Europe is densely populated, locked in resource intensive economic model, facing increasing, more volatile resource prices, which are already the dominating cost structures for majority of the companies, and we are import dependant for our resources and energy. So if we want to maintain our quality of life, and since we do not want to compete on global market by lowering our wages and social standards, we have no other option but to increase the value added through improving the productivity of both, labour and resources.

While labour productivity is already an important part of our policy activities, resource productivity is still very much an untapped opportunity. This package is a major conceptual contribution to the shift in the direction of improving resource productivity. It is an answer to the challenge of improving global competitiveness of European companies while protecting our quality of lives. It is an answer how to maintain strong industrial base in Europe and protect our health and environment.

It is essential for our future industrial competitiveness not only that we produce products using less raw materials, less energy and less water, but also that we are able to replace virgin materials and imports with supplies of secondary raw materials where they are available, and that we produce products that can be re-used, repaired, refurbished and recycled.

This is what we mean by a circular economy. In essence we propose to make Europe a society without waste. To take the 600 million tons of materials contained in our waste and pump them back into productive use in the economy.

So the package adopted today links our waste policy to our resource efficiency objectives by promoting circularity in our economies. It is a major contribution both to the Commissions policy for growth and jobs and to environmental protection. It is a clear recognition that both policies can go hand in hand, and that is why the proposals in the package are led not just by me, but by my colleagues, Laslo Andor, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, and (my recently departed colleague) Antonio Tajani.

The package is a strategic answer to the new reality of globalisation and increasing pressures on limited and scarce natural resources.

So Europe's waste policy is becoming a "zero waste" policy.

di Janez Potočnik