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Waste management and circular economy

Circular economy - 04.11.2020

Tjisse Stelpstra: "To reach a true circular economy, we need a mental shift towards the paradigm 'there is no waste' "
As the European Commission has decided on new actions to be taken to promote the circular economy, we spoke with Tjisse Stelpstra, regional minister of the Province of Drenthe (Netherlands) and CEMR spokesperson on energy, to get up to speed on the role of local and regional governments in this new action plan. We also broached the question of how the circular economy can contribute to creating a more sustainable world after the coronavirus pandemic. 
A few months ago, the Commission tabled a series of measures and actions on circular economy.  How can local governments participate in this shift? 
If you take a close look into the new Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, you will barely see any notice of the role of local and regional governments. This is regrettable because I think local and regional governments do play an important role. They have abilities and manage the different areas where the circular economy comes close to the citizens, such as handling waste, water, spatial planning and buildings. There are many good practices visible at the local and regional level. Circular public procurement is also a powerful means of action for local and regional governments.

The Committee of the Regions has adopted an opinion calling on the Commission not only to finance this transition, perhaps more importantly to raise awareness on the fact that regional and local governments can contribute significantly to the success of the Action Plan.
Can you give us an example of what is done in your province?
One example that comes to mind is the Northern Innovation Lab for Circular Economy, or NICE for short. This initiative deals with a range of circular economy issues for governments, companies, knowledge institutes and citizens.
NICE’s approach is unique  in bringing together young people to find solutions to these challenges. By innovating, discovering and experimenting, it helps accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. NICE also works in the vocational field, turning young talent into circular professionals well-prepared for the labour market. If I had to give one example of their achievements, it would be: ‘Drenthe Circular Living’. This is a partnership of eight housing corporations. A joint exploration of the why, how, what and who of circular construction and living environment. A living lab throughout the Province of Drenthe provides the context for learning by doing, based on several concrete construction projects. 
You are the rapporteur for the Committee of the Region’s opinion on circular economy mentioned earlier. As a local leader, what suggestions do you make to improve the Commission’s proposal?
First, we must stimulate companies to produce in a new circular way. Extended Producer Responsibility is a crucial strategy to ensure proper business cases, in which producers adopt approches that are "safe-and-circular-by-design". 

Second, we need to prevent waste. The Commission should propose a target on absolute waste generation per capita as well as waste prevention targets for businesses and industries. Besides this, in order to reach a true circular economy, we need a mental shift towards the paradigm "there is no waste". What we call waste is a collection of resources. And COVID-19 has shown us how dependent we are on resources. So, keep them. Don’t waste any waste!
Finally, I also call for green public procurement criteria and targets. I recommend developing a set of positive innovation targets and call on the Commission to stretch these to become truly circular public procurement
You also call for further development of green public procurement as a powerful means of encouraging the creation of more sustainable products and services. How can we ensure that this does not increase the administrative burden for towns and regions?
I think the question is if this will indeed increase the administrative burden or not. Personally I think not. Green public procurement will not create more work, but rather a different approach. Unfortunately, this argument is often used not to start at all. Furthermore, I argue for structuring administrative organisations more towards the circular economy.  This will however require education and training. 

How could the EU support local and regional governments to implement the new Circular Economy Action Plan? (e.g., direct access to funding, green public procurement, implement indicators, to create a programme which brings together accurate info from the ground so all local government can use them as inspiration, etc.)
We know that many local and regional governments are already paving the way for the circular economy. However, it is important to acknowledge the fact that progress is not homogeneous across the EU and within Member States. Therefore, to achieve the goals we want, we need clear targets on different subjects. One overall target should be that we relate circular economy to the reduction of CO2. This is why I call on the Commission to accompany every key action with an estimated result and an ambitious timetable. 
I believe there is a need to implement - at EU level - a total resource-use reduction target in order to decouple growth and resource use. To reach these targets, cooperation is needed between countries and regions. The Commission should actively facilitate and stimulate this cooperation. They should also support Member States and regions by providing the necessary funds. 

The current crisis has shown that EU countries were highly dependent on resources and products produced in other parts of the world, with a very “uncircular” approach. How could the circular economy contribute to building a more sustainable future after the coronavirus crisis?

We will need to keep resources within Europe by reusing and recycling them. So, whenever we need these resources, we will be able to use them promptly. We also need to put more effort into producing and using local, regional and European products. COVID-19 has shown us this is possible. Therefore, in a circular economy we will be less dependent on new raw materials in the long run.
In order to reduce dependency and strengthen security of supply, the European Commission and Member States should orchestrate resource management, especially with regards to scarce and critical materials. The development towards an EU Resource Policy Platform should be explored.
Member States are currently designing their national recovery plans. Do you think that the new EU Recovery Plan will push forward investments improving circularity? Will it improve local governments’ capacity to invest?
I surely hope it does. During the COVID-19 crisis a lot of public funding has been invested and will continue to be invested. With this public funding certain terms may be set that serve the public interest Also, now is the time to do so because we need to restart the European economy.  If you must restart, do it wisely. Don’t make the patient ill again but re-energize the patient, improve general economic immunity and create an even better vitality!
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