Circular economy insures against commodity volatility – EU chief

As recycling firms struggle to compete with low raw material prices, Brussels package aims to reduce resource footprint

Trash or treasure? Brussels wants to send no more than 10% of waste to landfill by 2030 (Pic: Pixabay)

Trash or treasure? Brussels wants to send no more than 10% of waste to landfill by 2030 (Pic: Pixabay)

By Megan Darby

EU policies to end throwaway culture are expected to cut the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions 2-4% a year.

The idea of the Circular Economy Package, agreed last December, is to recycle and reuse more materials and products.

It is up against a slump in commodity prices – notably oil – that makes some raw materials cheaper than recycled.

Daniel Calleja Crespo, director general of environment at the European Commission, told industry leaders on Tuesday that circular systems offered “insurance” against future price spikes.

“We see now prices are very low, but if you are circular, you are insuring against this fluctuation,” he said at an event in London.

“We need to move from the classic economic linear model where you produce, you consume and you throw away, to a more virtuous circle through the lifecycle of the product.”

When it comes to raw materials, the EU imports six times as much as it exports. By becoming more self-reliant, the bloc will see estimated net benefits of €600 billion a year, as well as slimming its environmental footprint.

“It is an absolute necessity,” said Calleja. “We are a region of the world that is vulnerable.”

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He was addressing members of green business network the Aldersgate Group, which organised the panel discussion.

Sustainability chiefs from Ikea, Viridor, Interserve and Jaguar Land Rover welcomed the package, touting their own resource-saving initiatives.

Jonathan Garrett of Jaguar Land Rover, the UK’s biggest carmaker, highlighted the use of lighter aluminium instead of steel, to improve vehicle efficiency. Aluminium takes more energy to produce, but by getting half from recycled sources, the balance tips into green credit – and the firm is aiming to raise that to 75%.

When it came to recycled plastic, on the other hand, Garrett said “our guys won’t touch it right now”. With oil prices at US$30 a barrel, virgin plastic is cheaper.

That squeezes the profits of businesses like Viridor, a major UK recycling and energy-from-waste firm. “It is really hurting us right now, commodity prices collapsing,” said Inder Poonaji.

As the market value of recycled materials falls, Viridor is investing more in the energy recovery side. From an environmental perspective, that is a less desirable option.

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Mat Roberts  from Interserve, a construction and building services firm, was less concerned. “That’s life in business – we deal with commodity price fluctuation all the time.”

The company is aiming to halve carbon emissions from 2013 levels by 2020, largely by reusing construction materials. “As a business, we have the appetite to do this.”

Clearing sites for building is no longer about demolition, said Roberts, but stripping away reusable assets. In a wackier example, Interserve collects and recycles spent bullets from military training grounds.

Furniture giant Ikea is also trying to get consumers involved, said Joanna Yarrow. “We are not just talking about production here, we are talking about changing consumption patterns.” It offers services like free replacement parts and mattress collection as well as recycled products.

Under the EU package, the bloc must send no more than 10% of waste to landfill by 2030. Linked innovation funds are worth €600 million this year and €1bn next year, Calleja said.

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