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Written by: Editorial staff | Published:
Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner in charge of the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner in charge of the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, explains how Member States are being helped to address their waste issues

Despite its 7,000-year history, with a greater density of historic sites than any other country, Malta and its citizens maintain a low profile in today’s European politics.

Not so when it comes to Karmenu Vella, the Maltese politician who took over the role of European Commissioner in charge of the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries from Janez Potočnik in November 2014. Vella says he is determined to keep recycling and the circular economy high on the political agenda, and he intends to use all the connections at his disposal to achieve this aim.

To gain a greater understanding of Vella’s views, what does he consider to be the most important waste issues in 2017 that Member States should be focusing on?

“When you look across the EU, you see big differences in waste management, and in how the waste hierarchy is applied. If we want a more circular economy – and EU governments are agreed that they do – then recycling rates need to rise across the board, and landfilling needs to go down to an absolute minimum,” states the Commissioner. “More and more citizens can see that it makes sense, but a lot depends on the waste infrastructure that’s in place, how separate collection systems have developed, the presence of economic incentives to recycle, campaigns to build awareness, and administrative competence at the local and national levels. Those are the areas where more needs to be done.”

Working together

Vella stresses that the EU Commission is doing what it can to help Member States.

“We work with Member States that have low recycling rates and high landfill, arranging exchanges of best practices and encouraging them to use EU funding where possible. But they need to spread the word among citizens as well, showing them that recycling means local jobs and local growth. When people understand the reasons, they are much more likely to be enthusiastic,” he argues, before adding: “In fact there are lots of good examples. The Welsh government recently unveiled a £6.5m fund to help SMEs move towards a circular economy. We need more examples like that.”

Where is the Commission with the Circular Economy Package?

“On the legislative front, the waste proposals are advancing well through the other institutions, and both the Council and the European Parliament are making them a priority. There are many specifics I could single out from the action plan,” explains the Commissioner. He points to the Ecodesign Working plan for 2016-2019 that was adopted towards the end of last year with a focus on product groups with the highest potential for energy and resource savings.

“We’ve also acted on food waste, setting up a platform to bring together stakeholders and identify best practices, and preparing guidelines on food donation and the use of foodstuff as feed. For the building industry, we launched a new protocol for construction and demolition waste management to make it easier to separate waste at source, collect it and manage it more efficiently.”

On the financial side, Horizon 2020 is reported to be delivering €650m of investment in 2016 and 2017 to finance demonstration projects for circular economy and industrial competitiveness.

“In January we launched the Circular Economy Finance Support Platform to bring investors and circular economy project promoters together, and to make it easier for projects to find the backing they need, and we are in the process of launching a Stakeholder Platform for the circular economy as well.” He pauses before saying with a grin: “Overall, a series of steps rather than a giant leap, but that’s how you keep going for a long time.”

Changes ahead?

Does the Commission propose increasing recycling targets, and
by how much? Vella’s reply is unambiguous.

“Yes. The legislative proposals we presented as part of the EU Circular Economy Package in December 2015 set out a common target for recycling 65% of municipal waste and 75% of packaging waste (with minimum targets per stream of 55% for plastic, 75% for wood, and 85% for ferrous metals, aluminium, glass and paper and carton), all to be achieved by 2030. “We also want to reduce landfill to no more than 10% of municipal waste by 2030. For some Member States these targets may seem ambitious, but we firmly believe they can be met if the right measures are taken, and the good practices from countries with high recycling rates and low landfilling are applied.”

With the EU celebrating its 10th anniversary of pioneering recycling rules, which in Vella’s view are the highlights of the past decade, and why?

The Commissioner is quick to give credit to those countries that have made an effort to achieve recycling targets.

“Looking back, you can see that some Member States have made good progress towards EU recycling targets: practically all countries are reaching the targets for packaging waste and end-of-life vehicles, for example. But others are still a long way from the targets for municipal waste and construction and demolition waste, and they urgently need to step up their efforts. The bare minimum is establishing or strengthening the application of the separate collection obligation for paper, metal, plastic and glass. It’s been in force since 2015, and it’s vital for meeting the targets and building high-quality recycling markets.”

Vella flags up the EU Environmental Implementation Review, a new tool that identifies the main shortcomings in Member States and which is expected to soon provide support towards the full implementation of waste legislation.

“Since 2015, separate collection has been obligatory for paper, metal, plastic and glass, and this has been vital in raising the quality of recycling markets. Funding from the EU has also had a considerable impact, and it’s very pleasing to see that in the current financial period (2014-2020), EU Cohesion Policy will be allocating €5.6bn to waste management, with 40% going to waste prevention, sorting and recycling,” explains the Maltese politician before stating: “That’s a great indication of how much things have changed, and how we are now well on the way to becoming a more circular economy. The waste legislation can take a lot of credit for that.”

Protecting oceans from plastic waste

Following a recent meeting with Administrator Hong Wang of the Chinese State Oceanic Administration to discuss ocean governance and international ocean developments, in which Vella stated that the EU and China have a shared responsibility to protect oceans for future generations, what activities does the EU propose in order to reduce the amount of mostly plastic waste in the world’s oceans?

“The first step is improving our own management of plastic waste,” responds the Commissioner. “The new legislative proposal – together with full implementation of the requirements that are already there in EU waste legislation – should make a significant difference. We are also set to adopt a new Plastics Strategy this year, and that will also feature a marine litter component.”

He admits it is a complex issue, particularly as there are many players.

“The plastics industry can do more to prevent waste generation, by designing materials and products which can be more easily recycled, and by contributing to the development of more effective waste management systems through extended producer responsibility schemes,” opines the Commissioner, before pointing out that the issue is complicated by the fact there is “a huge international angle with projections showing that unless things change fast, there could be as much plastic as fish in the oceans by 2050”. Vella sighs and adds: “No-one wants that to happen so we need to find ways of triggering a greater international response.”

In the Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) communication and country reports published in February, it was found that Member States across the board had difficulties implementing reforms in waste management. Analysis of implementation failures revealed four root causes that were shared throughout the EU: lack of administrative capacity and insufficient findings, lack of knowledge and data, insufficient compliance and lack of policy integration into larger government.

How does the EU Commission propose to help Member States address these?

“When environmental standards aren’t applied, society as a whole pays the bill. If these environmental rules were applied properly, it could save the EU €50bn every year. Waste policy alone could create an additional 400,000 jobs by 2020, and water legislation would bring annual benefits slightly under €3bn.”

Vella emphasises that the analysis is clearly worth doing.

“The EIR is part of our broader efforts to improve the implementation of these commonly agreed rules. The idea is to start with analysis, then engage in dialogue and collaboration. We have just finished the first step, showing the successes, the weaknesses and the opportunities in each Member State,” continues Vella. “The next step is dialogue with each Member State, in formats that vary according to national requirements. Belgium, Slovakia and Estonia have scheduled dialogues for March and April.”

Providing tailored support

And it won’t be long (“before the summer”, promises the Commissioner) before the EU Commission intends to roll out a peer-to-peer tool that will allow frontrunners to provide tailored support to other Member States, and encourage exchanges of best practice through expert missions, study visits and workshops supported
by the Commission.

“The intention is to use the EIR to set the political
agenda and raise structural implementation issues in the Council and elsewhere. That seems to be working, as we now have strong interest in the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, and the Social and Economic Committee as well,”

Always keen to hear and share new ideas, including those from the UK, despite Brexit, Vella will be speaking at the Financial Times Circular Economy Summit in London at the end of this month.

“I’m very much looking forward to hearing more UK industry perspectives. We need maximum buy-in from recyclers, and we only get that when we listen to their concerns. That will be another good opportunity to make the connections we need.”

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