Category Archives: Environmental Policy

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]

I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals 20 years ago….

In July 1995 – 20 years ago – I started a web site on hormone disrupting chemicals.

I’ve got a full backup of the site as it was on 5th September 1995 – here’s a pdf of the front page.

A later version of the web site was up until 2018, when TalkTalk stopped providing web space. However, the site is still available on the Internet Archive ‘Wayback Machine’ – here’s the pages as they were in March 2000. [This paragraph was updated in April 2019 to remove the original link & add a ‘wayback’ link].  Continue reading

Window dressing vs reduced business risks and impacts – which to choose?

Companies have impacts – on people, on the environment – some positive, some negative. Sometimes the negative impacts become very obvious and very negative – for example when a textile factory in Bangladesh collapses. Sometimes the impacts are less visible, displacement of people from their land, discharge of toxic chemicals, or exploitation of fossil fuels.

There are many way of addressing these impacts, including direct legislation, standards & labelling. One approach that sounds promising at first sight – but is yet to really deliver – is company reporting: Continue reading

We need to change – but to what? and how fast?

“cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”

We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance – on the one hand, many people (particularly in business) now realise that the economy can’t go on the way it is – with increasing climate changing emissions, pressure on resources and biodiversity – while at the same time taking the view that it’s not politically practical to do anything about it. Continue reading

Measuring to manage: Commission launches consultation on measuring our use of resources

Ever thought it was strange that we measure – and try to reduce – our climate changing emissions, yet we don’t do the same with our resource use? In fact, there isn’t even general agreement on how to measure our use of resources.

This could be about to change though, as the European Commission’s Environment department have launched a consultation on “Options for resource efficiency indicators” – it’s available here. This is part of the Commission’s wider focus on resource efficiency, led by Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

I warmly welcome this consultation, as we identified this as important issue some years ago, and at Friends of the Earth Europe we’ve been working to solve this problem. The four indicators of resource use that we identified in this work are now proposed by the Commission in this consultation, which is a very positive step:

  • Overall material use – how much material do we use, from wherever in the world it originates
  • Land footprint – how much land we use, again from wherever it comes from in the world (e.g. the land used to grow soy in Paraguay to feed to chickens in Europe)
  • Water footprint – the water used to make products
  • Carbon footprint – the greenhouse gases released.

This is an important step forward, as the resources debate has been dominated by an academic argument between those who want to just measure the tonnes of stuff we use – maybe even just within Europe – and those who want everything to be translated into environmental impact. The former is too narrowly focussed, the latter is probably largely unachievable at an economy-scale, for example:

  • What is the environmental impact of a tonne of wood? Is that wood from a plantation, or rainforest? What species? How much of the forest is left?

We believe that the four indicators above, taken together, give a vital tool to measure and manage our resource use – at product level, company level or at national or EU level. Many companies are already looking at their carbon footprint and water footprint – and identifying substantial reductions in resource use & economic savings. We believe that this approach can assist in making Europe more resource efficient – something that is economically very important in these troubled times.

The proposals in the consultation aren’t perfect – it’s unclear what the Commission proposes to do by when, and whether they will go with the data that is already available (e.g. see this presentation of mine), or delay considering the implications of our resource use until they have gathered ‘perfect’ statistical data.

The Consultation was launched on 26th July & closes on 22nd October – Friends of the Earth Europe will be producing a consultation response towards the end of the consultation period. For more information on our work on resource use, see this page on the Friends of the Earth Europe site.

Land – so important, yet so ignored….

People have been talking about resource use for years – we use too much, we don’t distribute it equitably, things are getting more expensive, running out, etc etc etc.

The thing that puzzles me is that these conversations tend to be about materials – in general, or specific materials (oil, metals, rare earths etc) – and most of the time a key natural resource is ignored – land.

It’s blindingly obvious that land is a limited resource – as Mark Twain said “Buy Land, they’re not making it anymore”. Across the world the pressure on land is increasing – from increasing demand for food (particularly meat & dairy), from the increasing use of biofuel and biomass as an energy source, and from growing urbanisation.

Land is obviously crucial to biodiversity – but it is also intimately  linked to people’s rights, history and incomes. The growing demand for land – combined with financial speculation – is creating a massive increase in land disputes, as companies and governments try to gain control of land.

This is leading to deaths and imprisonments of local people, for instance 17 people were killed in June 2012 during a police-led eviction of peasant farmers in Paraguay. This was followed by the arrest of a local person who was working with Friends of the Earth, though he was later released following international pressure  (see Friends of the Earth International news story)

And yet, land just doesn’t seem to be front of mind when many people talk about resource use. For example, the UK Environment Ministry DEFRA has just launched a consultation on “Guidance for Business on Key Environmental Performance Indicators“. As you might expect, this includes measuring climate emissions, waste, material use, even water – but what about land?

Well, land use change gets a mention in the section on biodiversity, but not beyond this, in spite of the fact that scale of land use is so important as companies make decisions on bio-based materials and feedstocks – or even what to food to serve. Yet measuring impacts on biodiversity is much more difficult than measuring scale of land use.

There is a straightforward way to measure and manage the amount of land required by a company, an economy, or to produce an individual product – it’s called Land Footprint. This is a really straightforward measurement of  the real area of land required, in hectares. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it does work very well as a top-level metric, which facilitates further analysis (e.g. looking at where the land is, why we are using that land etc). If you want to know the land footprint of EU countries, see our report on “Europe’s land import dependency”.

For more about land footprint, see this talk I gave to a conference organised by the European Commission on soil sealing in May 2012.

We’ll be asking DEFRA – and indeed the European Commission – to make sure that future policies on environmental reporting & resource use do include land. We’d welcome the same message coming from other people and organisations too!!


Resource Efficiency for Engineers

This morning I gave a presentation on “Resource Efficiency policy for Europe” as part of a ‘sandpit’ on “Engineering Solutions for Resource Efficiency” organised by the UK’s Engineering & Physical Research Council (EPSRC).

The EPSRC  is working to generate innovative ideas for research on resource efficiency, and they issued a call for people interested in getting funding to participate in a 1 week ‘sandpit’ to generate research ideas. The ‘sandpit’ is happening this week – starting with opening up the discussions through external speakers (including myself), and then developing specific proposals by the end of the week, with initial decisions made on funding.

From my brief experience it looks like a good process, encouraging new thinking & innovation – hopefully there will be some good ideas by the end of the week!

My presentation focussed on the work we are doing to standardise resource use measurement at EU level (focussing on land footprint, carbon footprint, water footprint & overall material use) & then encourage policies that reduce resource use (like phasing out residual waste, not setting biofuels targets etc). It generated an interesting discussion, particularly on land footprint, which emphasised the way in which this indicator in particular starts people thinking in more depth about the crucial land issue & its complexities.

My talk also highlighted a few key questions for engineers who are proposing new ideas:

  • Is what you are proposing solving a problem, or just displacing it?
  • Is your approach part of a long term vision of a sustainable society?
  • Is it just an intermediate ‘solution’? If so, how will it be phased out?
  • Are you being realistic about how your approach will be used?
  • Is the solution new technology or better systems? (e.g. separate collection vs separation plants for recycling)
  • Does your approach help in creating greater equity, as well as resource efficiency?

Resource Efficiency flagship launches tomorrow

The European Commission’s President José Manuel Barroso will launch the Flagship Initiative on resource efficiency tomorrow. As mentioned in my previous post, this should start to spell out what the Commission intends to do to address the challenges posed by our increasing use of the world’s resources.

President Barroso’s web page is here, and the press release should appear on the “Midday Express” page at around 12.00 CET on Tuesday 26th.

Many groups will release press statements during the afternoon following the release, including Friends of the Earth Europe and the European Environment Bureau. I expect that it will also be covered by the news sites Euractiv and, in the early evening, ENDS Europe Daily.

Update: There should also be a live video feed here on the Commission’s web site; after the event you should be able to watch a recorded stream from the same page

The EU2020 Resource Efficiency Flagship Initiative – what is it?

At the start of March, the Commission published its new EU 2020 strategy, “A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”, which included a commitment to “Sustainable growth – promoting a more resource efficient, greener and more competitive economy.

In order achieve this transition, the Commission proposed a “Flagship Initiative” on a “Resource Efficient Europe“:

The aim is to support the shift towards a resource efficient and low-carbon economy that is efficient in the way it uses all resources. The aim is to decouple our economic growth from resource and energy use, reduce CO2 emissions, enhance competitiveness and promote greater energy security.

In the months since this announcement, the big question has been: What does this actually mean in practice?

During this period, the Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik has been making clear his views on the importance of Resource Efficiency, for example in this speech to an event at Oxford University:

“..what the world doesn’t need is a blinkered pattern of consumption; production and usage that strips our planet without working out something fundamental from the word go: we don’t have enough to go round!

Resource efficiency for me is the philosophy against the next great extinction. We are trying to throw away, the throwaway generation.”

At Friends of the Earth Europe we decided that this was a good time to organise an event to discuss this initiative, and how to make sure it makes a real difference.

The event (which was in a small room & totally full, so I didn’t promote it here) happened last Thursday in the European Parliament; the presentations are now on-line, and in a few weeks we will upload a full write-up.

The presentations cover a range of issues, including how the supermarket REWE in Austria is using the SERI/FOEE resource use indicators, how business resource efficiency is being improved in North Rhine Westphalia in Germany, why Europe needs a binding energy efficiency target, and (from me) how measuring Europe’s resource use can help improve our resource efficiency, in particular the future pressures on land.

What the presentations don’t include (but will be in the write-up) is the introductory presentation by Robin Miege of DG Environment, and the panel discussion with contributions from DG Agriculture, DG Enterprise and DG Employment.

A number of points struck me in these presentations and discussions:

  • The Commission (probably President Barroso himself) will launch a ‘Communication’ on the Resource Efficiency Flagship Programme in January.
  • There is lots of work going on within Commission DGs as part of this communication & the various processes that will follow it. This includes studies, and more cross-Commission work than is normal.
  • Although the Commission are doing a lot of internal communication on this subject, there is not much external visibility of these discussions.
  • DG Environment are going to publish a ‘Road Map’ on Resource Efficiency in June or July, probably preceded by a consultation in January/February.
  • Other DGs have linked processes going on, which should reflect or be part of this Flagship, including reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, a new Energy Efficiency Action plan and a Transport White Paper.
  • There are also links with other EU2020 Flagship Initiatives, including on Innovation, Industrial Policy and Jobs & Skills.

The big question is: Will this Flagship Programme (and EU2020 as a whole) result in real policies that lead to a substantial reduction in Europe’s levels of resource use?

Of course, we also need to make sure that we are actually measuring our resource use, otherwise we won’t actually know if new policies are really reducing our resource use!!!


A quick catch-up

I’m sorry about the months of silence on this blog – things have just been too busy, and I didn’t seem to be able to make the time to post.

However, I’m hoping to change that now & post more regularly!

Here’s a few relevant things that we’ve been up to in the past few months:

  • Our conference on “Measuring Europe’s Resource Use: A vital tool in creating a resource efficient EU“, mentioned in a previous post, happened at the beginning of June, and was very interesting and successful. We’ve produced a full write up, and all the presentations are available, see this page on the Friends of the Earth Europe site.
  • We commissioned a study of how many jobs could be created in the EU if the current recycling target of 50% would be increased to 70% – the answer being over 500,000! For more details, see the press release and the full study.
  • We organised another event on resource efficiency in the European Parliament last week – the talks are now on the web, but I’ll do another post about the event soon.