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European Commission takes aim at ‘greenwashing’ in new circular economy action plan

“The EU’s circular economy action plan goes a long way in setting out an agenda on sustainable products.”

The European Commission (EC) has unveiled new plans to take aim at greenwashing and develop a policy framework on the use of bio-based plastics in its new circular economy action plan which was launched today.

Under its new proposals, companies will have to substantiate environmental claims using the EU’s ‘Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint (PEF)’ methodology. The PEF makes it possible to determine all relevant environmental and health impacts as well as resource-related burdens caused by a product, the EC claims. For the calculation, the entire life cycle of the products is considered, from raw material procurement to disposal.

Greenwashing refers to products that wrongly claim to be sustainable.

The EC also plans to strengthen consumer protection laws against greenwashing and is looking at setting “minimum requirements for sustainability labels/logos” for companies to meet.

These plans, which come under the umbrella of the EU’s Green New Deal, form part of a new sustainability product policy framework proposal under the EC’s circular economy action plan. Overall, it aims to ensure that products placed on the EU market are designed to last longer, are easier to reuse, repair and recycle, and incorporate as much as possible recycled material instead of primary raw materials.

The EC will also propose that companies substantiate their environmental claims using ‘Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint’ methods. The EC will test the integration of these methods under the EU Ecolabel regulation and include more systematically durability, recyclability and recycled content in the EU Ecolabel criteria.

Bio-based sector

Elsewhere, the EC also said that it would address emerging sustainability challenges by developing a policy framework on sourcing, labelling and use of bio-based plastics, based on assessing where the use of bio-based feedstock results in genuine environmental benefits, going beyond reduction in using fossil resources.

A policy framework will also analyse the use of biodegradable or compostable plastics, based on an assessment of the applications where such use can be beneficial to the environment, and of the criteria for such applications, the EC maintained. It will aim to ensure that labelling a product as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ does not mislead consumers to dispose of it in a way that causes plastic littering

The new rules will also tackle what is known as “premature obsolescence”, the syndrome in which manufacturers make goods with deliberately low lifespan to force consumers into buying a newer model. The EC will give initial attention to ICT, electronics, chemicals and textiles when looking at this.

Other proposals under the EU’s circular economy action plan include:

  • making sure that all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable by 2030
  • ending over packaging
  • setting food waste reduction targets
  • reducing the impact of products on the climate and environment

Commenting on the circular economy action plan, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU), said: “To achieve climate-neutrality by 2050, to preserve our natural environment, and to strengthen our economic competitiveness, requires a fully circular economy. Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy. Many products break down too easily, cannot be reused, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only.”

Positive reaction

Environmental campaigners and trade bodies broadly welcomed the EC’s circular economy action plan.

David Newman, Managing Director at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, told Bio Market Insights that he welcomed plans on introducing stricter standards on sustainable products.

He said the bioplastics industry was at the forefront of meeting standards and this was part of its “USP”, adding: “It is the charlatans using the words like ‘biodegradable’ without actually quantifying it, certifying it, or even saying where and when, that cause us such headaches.”

However, he also criticised some elements of the EC’s plans, stating: “Whilst the scrutiny of compostables on the one hand is a shared objective (clarifying the market by eliminating charlatans is always good), it is also totally detached from what the EU is doing with its other hand, i.e. using billions of euros to invest in research into the production of “compostable” and innovative materials under programmes such as Horizon 2020 and BBIJU. So, there has been a total lack of joined up thinking here between directorates.

“Further, the role of compostables in their use for food waste management is continually ignored. Someone in the Commission has got to answer this one question, ‘how are we going to get an extra 50 million tons of food waste treated as biogas and compost if we collect those with plastics?'”

Also reacting to the publication of the circular economy action plan, Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director at environmental organisation Zero Waste Europe, said: “The CEAP is a nice patchwork of initiatives pointing in the right direction. Now the EU has to glue the pieces together to ensure that circular zero waste activities are more convenient and economic than the current, failing, linear ones.”

Stephane Arditi, Policy Manager for the Circular Economy at environmental organisation European Environmental Bureau, added: “The circular economy action plan can be a turning point for sustainability and climate action in Europe, which will hopefully inspire the rest of the world. It shows that the systemic change the people and the planet need is within reach.

“Now the EU institutions and the governments must turn these promises into laws and measures to maximise carbon emissions and resource savings. It’s time to do more with less.”

However, he said there was a missed opportunity to have a target for resource use and waste generation.

Doreen Fedrigo, Climate and Industry Policy Coordinator at Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, explained: “The EU’s circular economy action plan goes a long way in setting out an agenda on sustainable products. Stronger linkages between this plan and the wider industrial decarbonisation agenda are essential, so that industry has much clearer signals on the different ways it can reduce its emissions to net-zero before 2050.

“So far, emissions reduction is very narrowly focused on lower carbon energy sources such as electrification and hydrogen, and ignores the important contribution from product design and use of secondary raw materials. The European Commission states that half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress come from resource extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food. Hence we need more focused policy that can deliver the whole potential of a fully circular economy.”

If you were interested in this bioeconomy story, you may be interested in the ones below.

Read: European Commission unveils proposal for EU’s ‘first-ever’ climate law

Read: European Green Deal: Bioplastics to play a crucial role in making the deal become reality.

Read: Bioeconomy policy monitor

Read: Bioplastics to ‘play key role’ in implementation of circular economy and EU environmental directives.

Read: USDA proposes new GM rule.

Read: USDA amends its guidelines for designating bio-based products.

Read: European Commission urges industry to do more to boost recycled plastics market.

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