The first quarter of 2021 brought a lot of news in the area of circular economy. For example, the long-awaited regulation of single-use plastic is becoming more specific and the European Commission has issued a regulation on the new labelling of such products. A set of ecodesign requirements has also become effective, stipulating an obligation for the producers of electrical appliances to ensure the availability of spare parts for up to 10 years after the product has been introduced on the market. Other novelties include the findings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which calculated that a global change of fiscal policy would be the biggest push factor for the transition to circular economy, or a new report by the European Environment Agency, according to which the production of plastic got cheaper also due to the pandemic and the related decrease in economic activities.
The EU regulation introduces a uniform plastic product labelling
Effective from 1 July, the Single-Use Plastic Directive introduces many changes, including a total ban on plastic cutlery, straws, cups and other single-use plastics.
However, the Directive also introduces other measures to reduce plastic waste, such as the requirement to connect caps to beverage containers or to increase the awareness of consumers about plastic waste through product labelling. The “plastic in product” label, which will have a uniform design across the entire EU, should in the future be present on the packaging of sanitary pads and tampons, tampon applicators, wet wipes, tobacco products with filters, tobacco filters and beverage cups.
The label will not only draw attention to the plastic content in these products but also to the environmental impacts related to inappropriate handling of plastic waste, which often ends up in wastewaters, rivers and oceans, further disintegrating to microplastics, entering the food chain and posing a risk not only to plants and animals but potentially also to our health.
The new legislation will ensure that electrical appliances will be reparable long after the end of their lifespan
According to the data of the European Commission, 70% of consumers in the EU prefer repair over buying a new product. However, it is often impossible or it makes no economic sense to repair today’s products for many reasons – lack of spare parts or complex construction, due to which it is impossible to take the products apart without special tools. Therefore, even products that could have continued to serve for years end up as waste and, as a result, society produces significantly more waste than absolutely necessary.
In recent years, there has been a growing demand in the EU to overturn this negative trend by introducing the “right to repair”. The first step is a set of EU regulations that stipulate an obligation for producers to ensure the availability of spare parts for up to 10 years after the product has been introduced on the market. Producers will also have to consider the repair of a product already in the stage of construction design, so that main components are accessible using only basic tools. The result of these regulations should be, among other things, developing the after-sales service market, so that repairs of “broken” appliances are feasible and easily accessible.
There is a catch, however. For now, the “right to repair” will apply only to selected appliances, such as washing machines, dishwashers, fridges and TVs. It will probably take years for similar legislation to apply for example to mobile phones, laptops and other common devices.
Sustainable covering products and new criteria for awarding the EU Ecolabel
The EU Ecolabel can only be awarded to products that have a demonstrably lower impact on the environment than other products, taking into account the entire lifecycle from the production phase to the product’s disposal. However, the criteria under which the EU Ecolabel can be awarded to hard covering products (floor tiles, roof tiles, kerbs, kitchen worktops etc.) has changed since 16 March 2021.
The new approach to assessing candidates for the label is based on a point system. Points can only be received by products that meet facultative requirements or that perform significantly better than their competitors in terms of the environment. The purpose of the changes is also to reflect the innovations in the production of hard covering products in order to be able to award the label to, for example, covering products made of alternative materials.
Primary material tax as a way towards a circular economy?
The global consumption of mineral resources keeps growing with no sign of a decrease. Hand in hand with this, we see an increase in their extraction, which already has devastating environmental consequences. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has therefore recently published a study which discusses the possibilities of reducing the consumption of primary material through fiscal reform. The reform should tax the use of primary materials and the tax yields should be used in support of recycled goods and use of metals gained through secondary production.
According to the models used, by 2040, the fiscal reform should lead to the reduction in primary material consumption of 27% in the case of metals and 8% in the case of non-metallic minerals (compared to a scenario without a similar reform), at the cost of only limited impacts on the global economy. However, the study also admits complications associated with the modelled fiscal reform, concerning mainly the considerable asymmetric impacts on some regions (especially countries dependent on the export of mineral resources) and industries connected to the extraction of mineral resources.
Moreover, the fiscal reform would have to be a universal one. That is because countries that would not introduce the tax on primary materials would experience an increase in their use. Companies from countries that introduced the tax could “simply” move their production capacities where they would not have to pay the tax. The fiscal reform would, therefore, have to be carefully balanced; despite that, the authors of the study still consider it feasible and with predominating benefits.
Digital technologies in the service of waste management
The European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report which draws attention to the ways of how digital technologies can change waste management. As examples, it lists the use of robots, which can help sort recyclable materials through visual recognition, or “smart containers” and collection bins, which can evaluate their state of filling and order waste collection, all without inefficient paperwork.
According to EEA, digitalisation would help generate efficiency, which can help waste companies succeed in an otherwise highly competitive industry of waste management. The industry only uses low margins and therefore the competitive advantage related to digitalisation would pay off in the long term.
The production of plastics is cheaper also due to the pandemic, adding to the climate change
According to the data of the EEA, the coronavirus pandemic has contributed not only to the production of plastic waste (gloves, masks, single-use food plastic packaging), but also significantly reduced the price of the overall production of new plastics. That is because this production cannot do without a large amount of fossil fuels, the price of which has significantly dropped due to the overall decrease in economic activities during anti-epidemic measures.
As a result, producing new plastics has become more profitable than using recycled materials. Unfortunately, this complicates the efforts to limit the production and consumption of plastics and plastic products, which is crucial for environmental protection and plays an important role in the fight against climate change.
Circular economy in the individual phases of the life cycle
We have been hearing about the need to transition to a circular economy for a long time, but what does it mean in practice? The EEA has recently published a study illustrating the meaning of “circularity” in every phase of the life cycle.
Products should be designed and constructed in a way that makes them more durable and easier to repair, and during the time of their use, spare parts should be available. In the production phase, EEA emphasises not only the need to use recycled materials as much as possible and to search for alternative materials, but also the need to avoid certain undesirable substances completely. Digital technologies will play a key role in production and distribution, enabling the optimisation of production and distribution processes.
In the use phase, a circular transformation requires an individual approach to every specific product. Consumers themselves may contribute to this, by giving preference to new business models. As an example, the study presents access-based business models, under which the ownership of products remains with the company and customers pay only for their use, to maximise the use of the product through its entire lifespan. In the last, end-of-life phase, when the product becomes waste, a natural priority is recycling, reuse or material recovery.