Last October, the European Commission published its Work Programme for 2018. In the environmental area, a prominent topic is the EU initiative with respect to a ‘circular economy.’ This concept involves a transition to a “stronger and more circular economy where resources are used in a more sustainable way.”

The idea is to “close the loop” of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, so as to realize benefits for both the environment and the economy. Simultaneously, the EU’s circular economy strategy should “extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste,” “foster energy savings,” and reduce “Green House Gas emissions.” Accordingly, the Commission’s proposals cover the full lifecycle of products: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials.

The circular economy strategy is believed to have the potential to bring benefits to the economy, competitiveness, and the environment. The Commission first laid out this vision in the Circular Economy Action Plan of December 2015. With this plan, the Commission aimed to support innovation, jobs and growth. This plan included legislative amendments as well other policy instruments, such as subsidy programs. Some of these initiatives are already in the policy pipeline.

As far as the circular economy is concerned, the focus of the 2018 Work Programme is two-fold. First, it sets out a limited number of legislative actions to complete work in priority policy areas over the next several months. The Commission intends to submit all legislative proposals no later than May 2018. This will allow the European Parliament and Council the time to complete the legislative work before the European elections of June 2019. Second, the work programme presents a number of initiatives that have a more forward-looking perspective, such as climate change policies, including work on batteries.

The Commission intends to propose a limited number of proposals to reinforce its work in this area. These target the production and use of plastics, working towards all plastic packaging being recyclable by 2030, and the reuse of water. The Commission intends to tackle also legal, technical and practical bottlenecks where chemical, product and waste legislation meet.

The work plan sets forth the following timetable for these new initiatives:

  • Strategy on plastics use, reuse and recycling – non-legislative, Q4 2017;
  • Proposal for a Regulation on minimum quality requirements for reused water – legislative, Q4 2017;
  • Initiative to address legal, technical or practical bottlenecks at the interface of chemical, product and waste legislation – non-legislative, Q4 2017; and
  • Monitoring framework for the circular economy – non-legislative, Q4 2017.

An annex provides an overview of priority pending proposals. This annex lists also the four legislative proposals already pending in relation to the Circular Economy Package: (i) end-of-life vehicles, waste batteries, waste electrical and electronic equipment, (ii) waste, (iii) landfill of waste, and (iv) packaging and packaging waste.

The EU’s circular economy initiatives will affect all sectors of the economy. EU-based manufacturers, as well as importers into the EU will feel the effects of the EU’s policies. Products that are hard to recycle, that contain hazardous substances, or that use excessive resources (materials or energy) likely will be prime targets. But there likely also will be ways to avoid the bite of some of the EU’s new requirements.

Both EU producers and importers should therefore keep a close eye on the evolving circular economy initiatives. They should intervene where necessary, and otherwise prepare to secure future access to the EU market and to compete effectively.