One-man think-tank

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission’s senior adviser on sustainable development, was the main attraction at the recent RWM in Birmingham. Here, he gives Geraldine Faulkner his unique insight into all matters waste on the continent and in the UK

In the physical absence of a Defra minister at last month’s RWM, where the department’s Rory Stewart addressed delegates via a video link, the star speaker at the event was without a doubt Karl Falkenberg. It was the European Commission’s former director-general for the environment, and now its senior adviser on sustainable development, who made the effort to come to Birmingham’s NEC.

It was standing room only in RWM’s Circular Economy Connect Theatre as Falkenberg took his audience through issues such as the end of linear production processes, the need for eco design and the phasing out of co-mingled collections in the UK.

However, despite his ‘star status’ at the show, Falkenberg insists he doesn’t have the solution for all things sustainable in the EU. “I am an administrator,” he insists modestly. “I am not a political animal. I advise politicians and I hope my advice will be heard. I don’t have a monopoly on advice; there are a number of officials who work on various areas.”

Having said that, there is no doubt that the German-born economist and journalist is also an optimist. Well, you would have to be to take on the daunting task of sustainable development, particularly with the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) taking place in Paris this month and the revised circular economy package due to be unveiled by the EC in December.

Growth opportunities

“There are substantial growth opportunities, and from a European angle we are using our budget to help member states build recycling or energy recovery operations. There is growing recognition that this is useful, because when you start removing materials from landfill, that is when you create jobs, revenues and help the economy,” states the senior adviser firmly.

He goes on to point out that when he talks to recyclers, they say they have no problem getting quality recyclates into the market, but that there are challenges further down the line. “We would have a problem if imposing on companies such as car-makers to use 30% recyclates in the manufacture of their vehicles. They need to be assured the materials are safe, of good quality and do not present a risk.”

Managing people’s perception of risk is a factor to be considered when discussing energy from waste plants in the UK, says the senior adviser, who is not afraid to use the ‘I’ word. “We have wide differences in the acceptance of incinerators in member states, but it seems more difficult to build facilities in the UK,” observes Falkenberg. “And even though there is an energy from waste facility in Kent where landfill is down to 10%, there is little mention of it. We try to show examples of best practice all over Europe. I have been to Austria where there is the Spittelau waste incineration plant [which produces electricity and district heating for more than 60,000 households in Vienna].”

He pauses for a moment before adding: “The irony is that the health risks presented by the waste collecting fleet of lorries is 60 times bigger than with an incinerator like Spittelau.

“With investment in a local incinerator with district heating, it is possible to actually improve air quality to meet EU safety standards. We need to showcase that this technology is safe and that this is the direction we should take collectively.”

He also makes it clear he sees limited value in co-mingled collections, the preferred system of local authorities in the UK, because the lessons learned in the more efficient recycling nations highlight the economic value of separately collected waste streams.

“Businesses across Europe believe that separate collections are key to remunerative recycling activities – all except in the UK,” states Falkenberg. “It is a very peculiar approach in the UK. Plus, the UK is recycling substantially less than advanced member states on the continent and there is still 37% of municipal waste going into UK landfills, against close to zero in the advanced nations on the continent.”

With a grin, he adds: “Let competition select the best innovative solutions.”

Economic implications

And on the subject of clever solutions, Falkenberg notes the concerns expressed over the possible withdrawal of the UK compost and digestate producers and their certification schemes from EU fertiliser criteria.

He declares that: “End-of-waste criteria are a key to the circular economy. It is a key element, but we have not been successful at setting them for the moment. I am aware of the ongoing debate and we need to better understand all economic implications despite the fact there is an overwhelming logic to develop such end-of-waste criteria.”

Whatever the terminology, whether it is ‘criteria’ or ‘targets’, the senior adviser says “there are a lot of existing recycling targets in different waste streams that need to be upgraded. It will be up to member states to implement them in the respective most effective manner, to define the mechanics for translating collectively decided European levels into individual state measures on the basis of an analysis of what works best for them. The closer to reality these decisions are taken and the more efficient the city, such as Vienna, the more successful the recycling.”

With high levels of anticipation regarding the contents of the forthcoming revised CE package, Falkenberg says there is “a lot of thought on reuse, refurbishment and remanufacture in the proposal the European Commission is working on”, but before resource management specialists get too excited at the perceived prospect of the EU offering financial support, he poses the rhetorical question: “Why should one add public money for remunerative private business activity?” Instead, he says there will be access to best practice case studies that have developed over Europe.

Taking the lead on sustainability

Speaking of Europe, Falkenberg believes that sustainability is best understood in the EU.

“We would not have the sustainable development goals [which governments adopted at the UN in New York last September] if it wasn’t for the EU. Neither the US nor emerging economies such as China are really focusing on these issues. Having said that, we are far from perfect in the EU and we are in dire need of new approaches and there needs to be more thought given to this.”

But if anyone thinks that all the answers are going to come out of Falkenberg’s office, he warns he only has a “very small team”.

“I am a one-man think-tank that has been integrated into the EU president’s policy strategy team. Sustainability is a cross-cutting issue which affects employment and economic growth and should be very much more placed in the centre of politics,” explains the senior adviser, who promises to “discuss matters with directorates responsible for these areas and listen to European states from academia to local authorities in order to get an understanding of how they define sustainability and how they believe we should improve our sustainable policy thinking”.

In his view, an improvement in policy thinking applies also to other aspects of the economy. “We have just experienced a major international financial crisis, but many actors are returning to casino-style practices largely separate from the real economy,” he warns. “To ensure a steady economy and sustainable jobs, we need to coordinate all policy departments so that should another economic shock develop, the three dimensions of sustainability – environment, social and economic policies – are strong enough to withstand the danger.”

Taking a holistic approach is an attitude Falkenberg clearly admires. He alludes to it with regard to the approach taken at RWM.

“I have been struck by the awareness of issues that came through in the questions put to me. They were well articulated and to the point. What surprised me even more was the way the event put waste handling, water and renewable energy altogether,” he recalls.

“I find that very encouraging as we all have a tendency to only look at our respective silos and fail to have a holistic approach.”

The philosopher

Looking at the wider issues, Falkenberg becomes philosophical. “I think the way we produce and consume goods today is completely unsustainable in the perspective of the next 30 years and demographic growth projections predicting 10 billion people to live on this planet by then.

“We need to define rational policies to prepare for this huge challenge, to seize the opportunities rather than suffer the consequences of this dramatic evolution. The challenge is very, very big for economic, social and environmental policies and we see many different ideas being tested.”

With regard to the EU’s existing environmental legislation, should Europe opt for an interventionist approach to meet the challenge? Falkenberg responds: “The EU has fairly comprehensive legislation in place. We have directives for nature, water, air quality etc, but we need to revisit and streamline and upgrade existing legislation to make it more coherent and more ambitious, to solidly anchor our policies in scientific knowledge.”

Ever the optimist, Falkenberg stresses: “Instead of reinventing the wheel, we need to become a lot better at creating awareness and replicating best practice. Here in Europe we are getting there; more so than any other place in the world.”

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