EU and UK at odds over recycling targets

European Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella has reaffirmed his rationale for new recycling targets shortly after the UK revealed its concerns over the proposals.

Last Friday (4 March) a meeting of the Environment Council took place in Brussels with an environment minister present from each EU Member State to discuss the Circular Economy proposals for the first time.

The European Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella (left) has called for high recycling rates rather than losing materials to landfill or incineration; (right) Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under-Secretary spoke about overarching concerns with some of the new targets

A few ministers commented on the targets proposed in the Commission’s plans which were published in December 2015 with some of the strongest concerns raised by the UK. At present the EU is proposing a common EU target for recycling 65% of municipal waste by 2030.

Rory Stewart, the UK’s minister with responsibility for resource management and recycling told the meeting that the UK’s only “overarching concerns” were with the proposed targets. And, he said the UK was more excited about voluntary approaches to the circular economy and reducing the burden on businesses.

Mr Stewart said: “Our only overarching concerns, again not perhaps very surprisingly, are with some of the new targets. We want to ensure that they are not overly complex, that the Commission accepts the work that’s already been done by the Member States, and particularly on these targets we really do need to see the evidence base, particularly the cost-benefit analysis that’s been done and why the Commission really believes these targets are sensible and achievable.”

Taking a swipe at Mr Stewart and others who had some reservations about the targets, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella responded by saying that by not recycling, resources are being burnt or buried.


The Commissioner said: “I would remind you that the targets which we have proposed are proven to be achievable by several member states and if you are not achieving those recycling grades then unfortunately  you are are literally burying valuable resources in the ground or burning them.”

Mar 2 for bioenergy story - incinerator_flame
If Member States are not reaching high recycling levels then they are wasting resources through landfilling or burning them, said the EU Commissioner

And, Mr Vellu pointed out that even with binding targets, no EU country had been taken to court. He explained: “We already have waste targets and they have been an important incentive towards better waste management but even if they are legally binding no single member states around this table  has faced an infringement case for not meeting those targets. The real value is in setting a common direction and speed which gives a clear and a predictable framework for public and private investment.”


In contrast to the concerns over recycling targets, Mr Stewart expounded on the UK’s enthusiasm on the reduction of burdens on business and the idea of voluntary approaches.

He told the Environment Council: “From the UK’s point of view the circular economy package and particularly the commission note seems to be a really excellent and clear exposition of the ambitions and we’re really pleased to see it. Clearly we would say on behalf of the UK that the bits that excite us most are the emphasis on reducing the burden on business, the emphasis on the voluntary approach and we are also particularly interested I guess in the top half of the circular economy around the issues of production and consumption, particularly interested in eco design, industrial symbiosis, we would like to see more there and to work with you more closely on that.”

Commenting on the views of ministers at the meeting, the current chair of the Council, Sharon Dijksma, minister for the environment, Netherlands, said she was pleased to hear of broad support for the Circular Economy Action Plan. Ms Dijksma said: “There is no choice anymore, there is no alternative if we want to create sustainable economies for the future, if we want to be competitive globally and if we want growth and jobs without exhausting our resources. As government authorities we need to set the right incentives and the Action Plan will contribute to that.


There is no choice anymore, there is no alternative if we want to create sustainable economies for the future

Sharon Dijksma, Environment Council chair
Environment Minister, Netherlands

And, Mr Vellu concluded that the “the value of the action plan lies in addressing all phases of the lifecycle of products for a European circular economy. Independent studies have identified some savings of around 600 billion euros for EU businesses, which is equivalent to around 8 per cent of the total annual turnover. This would mean the creation of around 580,000 jobs and a reduction of EU carbon emissions by some 450 million tonnes each and every year from the transition to the Circular Economy.”

Comments from other member states covered a range of topics. The Spanish minister called for a greater effort on education and raising awareness. The Italian view was that different concepts and methods are used across the EU and it can be difficult to make comparisons.


The German minister said he would like to see the development of resource-efficiency objectives. while the French minister called for more ambition in reducing food waste, including tackling food which has not been sold. [The proposal is for a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030].

And, special action is required in the cooperation between member states because there are different definitions of waste, the Austrian minister said.

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