12 years ago this week we persuaded MEPs to back a 50% recycling target, and helped kick off the EU’s circular economy debate

Back in 2007, MEPs were discussing a revision to the EU’s main waste law, the Waste Framework Directive. The proposal from the European Commission was distinctly unimpressive, focussing on tinkering with end of waste standards, and a three step waste hierarchy (with recycling, reuse and incineration on the same level!).

I was leading Friends of the Earth’s (FoE) Resource use team, and we were working with Melissa Shinn at the European Environment Bureau (EEB) to get this draft law amended so that it would actually drive the resources debate forward.

Twelve years ago this week (the 13th February 2007), the European Parliament was preparing to vote on its first reading position on this law. We had been talking to the Parliament’s Environment Committee and had persuaded them to back the normal five step waste hierarchy. However, we had failed to persuade them to take a bigger step, to back a 50% recycling target for municipal waste by 2020, which we had decided was a reasonable target for Europe to set.

Our focus was on the MEPs preparing to vote in Strasbourg… we had a banner, some nice valentines cards (see above – Win my heart with your vote, Stop the Waste!, Vote recycling not incineration!), and people from the EEB and FoE networks around the EU to have lots of conversations with MEPs around the parliament… and we won by a margin of 85 votes (384 to 299).

This wasn’t the end of the story of course, as EU Member States must also approve new laws, but after many more discussions and arguments, the law was adopted in 2008, including the 50% recycling target and a important commitment to review this target:

By 31 December 2014 at the latest, the Commission shall examine the measures and the targets referred to in paragraph 2 with a view to, if necessary, reinforcing the targets and considering the setting of targets for other waste streams“.

This review process was then used by then-Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to kick off a proposed increase in recycling targets, including 70% of municipal waste by 2030, as part of his Circular economy initiative. The current Commission then withdraw this proposal and later re-tabled a new circular economy package, with a 65% by 2030 target, which is now EU law.

One lesson from this story is the way in which EU policy can build over time, allowing incremental improvements. A second is that civil society needs to continue to work on important environmental issues even when they are not trendy (as was the case with recycling in 2007), and such work can facilitate faster progress when an issue rises up the agenda again (as has happened with the ‘Circular Economy’).

These recycling targets affect environmental policies in all EU Member States, including the UK. The UK’s “Resources and Waste Strategy“, published in December 2018 has a nice timeline on page 13 which includes the 50% and 65% recycling targets, despite Brexit!

[I first posted this on linked in yesterday]

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