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  • Dear Readers!

    This editorial was written and ready for print and focused primarily on the EU’s Green Deal. And then coronavirus spread around the world and the text had to be revised. Despite the current situation, though, the Green Deal remains one of the most important projects for the European circular economy. And many other things have happened as well – the question surrounding DSD, for example.

    It is now official. On 22 April 2020, the first Cartel Panel of the Higher Regional Court [Oberlandesgericht] of Düsseldorf dismissed our appeal against the Cartel Office’s decision. Their ruling surprised us as we were sure that we had the better arguments in favour of us acquiring Duales System Deutschland GmbH. But we live under the rule of law and we will, of course, accept their decision. What we need to do now is to take the time required to take a detailed look at the Panel’s reasons for dismissing our appeal and then carefully decide what our next steps should be. In light of the fact that all other major competitors operate in this market, it will be interesting to see to what extent REMONDIS will get involved in the Dual System in the future.

    It is not so easy to look ahead at the moment, though, faced with the current coronavirus emergency. When the first media reports came through on 29 December last year that China had informed the WHO that it had an unexplained cluster of people suffering from an unidentified lung disease, no one realised just how hard or how fast this virus would affect the globalised economy. It is practically impossible to estimate the costs incurred by the economy grounding to a halt as a result of the virus. And it is not just the private sector that has felt the impact. Many city and district authorities were already in financial difficulties before the crisis began. Their situation can only get worse, now that their revenue from local business tax and their takings from their local amenities have plummeted. Maybe it is time to set aside old arguments and enter into long-term partnerships with the private sector that will benefit both parties – especially when it comes to delivering essential public services. Setting up public private joint ventures dedicated to providing essential services could help mitigate the consequences of the crisis. At the end of the day, ‘a load shared is a load halved’. One positive coming from these unprecedented times is the increased sense of solidarity among the population and towards many sections of the economy. REMONDIS, too, is there to help and support its municipal partners – during this crisis more than ever.

    Past pandemics have rarely lasted longer than two years. At some stage – whether with or without a vaccine – public life and business will return to normal. This will be the moment when it will become clear to all that our planet’s biggest problem – climate change – has not solved itself. Once again, the spotlight will be turned on the European Union’s Green Deal. Looking at a list published from within the EU, there is a danger of important regulations being watered down, especially in the area of the circular economy. In contrast, the German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina, expressly advises against neglecting climate action and environmental protection following the Covid-19 crisis in its ad-hoc statement published on 14 April 2020. In fact, it recommends the exact opposite. The economy must be kick-started so that it can grow again and should, it says, be “guided more firmly than before by considerations of sustainability, not least because this offers vast potential for economic growth.” Climate change is and will continue to be the biggest challenge for the future and REMONDIS, being one of the leading water and recycling businesses, will continue to put forward its solutions and play an important role.

    With this in mind: stay safe and stay positive.

    Thomas Conzendorf

Mr Wilms, from REMONDIS’ point of view, what is the all-important first step that has to be taken to achieve a climate neutral Europe?

Herwart Wilms: That all-important first step has already been taken as the upper echelons of the EU institutions have at last recognised the true significance of the circular economy and made it a principle of action for the future. This future must be climate neutral. The current Covid-19 pandemic changes nothing here. Sooner or later, the virus will either disappear or be overcome; whenever this happens, climate change will still be the most urgent problem that we will have to face. Which means the EU will not give up this objective. One thing is certain: fully closed production cycles must be set up for this goal to be achieved. In other words: it cannot be achieved without the recycling sector.

  • “As products are generally sold in other countries as well and must also be recycled, the principle of ‘ecodesign’ or ‘design for recycling’ – something REMONDIS has been calling for for many years now – will automatically have a positive impact and create growth in all member states.”

    Herwart Wilms, REMONDIS Managing Director

The European Union is not exactly well known for speaking in one voice when it comes to overcoming complex challenges. What needs to be done to ensure the Green Deal is a success across Europe?

Herwart Wilms: The Action Plan particularly emphasises the fact that there will be regulations for sustainable products and production processes to promote a “circular design” for all products and their packaging. This means using fewer primary natural resources and putting priority on ensuring products can be reused and repaired. As products are generally sold in other countries as well and must also be recycled, the principle of ‘ecodesign’ or ‘design for recycling’ – something REMONDIS has been calling for for many years now – will automatically have a positive impact and create growth in all member states. And I mean growth in employment here as well as economic growth. Put in a nutshell: products that are made with recycled raw materials and are designed so they can be recycled will be treated better than those that aren’t. The reason for this is because they have a better environmental footprint.

So move away from multi-layered packaging and other types of composite materials that are impossible for even the most technologically advanced sorting plants to separate?

Herwart Wilms: Exactly! This is one of the most important prerequisites if material life cycles are to be closed. This, in turn, will strengthen the demand for recycled raw materials. The Commission is quite rightly planning to strengthen the market for recycled raw materials and is currently looking at the possibility of prescribing a minimum recycled content for certain products. We believe that this is a good approach as making the use of recycled materials mandatory by introducing an obligatory “substitution rate” will increase demand for recycled raw materials. It will also create a market for materials that some European regions are still sending to landfill at the moment. Europe, which has so few natural resources of its own, will become less dependent on raw material imports and add considerable value to its economy.

There are so many materials and products on the market. What concrete steps need to be taken to achieve this objective?

Herwart Wilms: The Resources Commission at the German Environment Agency has already drawn up some specific ideas. Firstly, it suggests that any technical obstacles, which may make it difficult for obligatory minimum recycled content requirements to be introduced, should be examined. A minimum recycled content or “substitution rate” should then be established over the long term. It proposes that this rate should be the ratio between the recycled raw materials used and the total amount of materials used. The overall goal must be to implement this substitution rate at product level rather than restrict it to individual products. Respective mandatory minimum recycled content requirements should then be set for product groups. These should be based on economic and environmental factors and be continuously adapted to changing conditions.

What else can be done to kick-start demand for recycled raw materials?

Herwart Wilms: One of the central measures being planned by the Commission is to gradually introduce compulsory green procurement criteria. If the EU makes it obligatory for public procurement officials across Europe to prioritise the purchase of products that are not only recyclable but have been manufactured using recyclates as well, then this is a paradigm shift that would have a considerable positive impact both on growth and on our climate. Public authorities, which spend around 2 billion euros on products and services across Europe every year (making up 14% of the EU’s gross domestic product), would quite rightly be seen as being an influential market player spearheading the creation of a sustainable circular economy. By introducing sectoral legislation and setting mandatory green procurement criteria for resource and carbon-relevant industries, public authorities can drive forward this transition by being “Public Buyers for Climate and Environment”. It is not just up to councils, though. We – the consumer – and industrial businesses must also be empowered to recognise the difference.

What difference do you mean here?

Herwart Wilms: Both consumers and public and industrial buyers must be able to recognise the difference between bad products, i.e. those that could potentially harm the environment, and good products, i.e. those that have been sustainably produced with as high a recycled content as possible. For this reason, the Commission is considering revising the ecolabel as an additional supportive measure. REMONDIS, by the way, has been calling for such a label for three years now. We have already put forward our own suggestion for an ecodesign label. This uses the well-known traffic light labelling system and makes the raw material efficiency level of a product clear to everyone immediately.

  • “One thing we definitely need to have is a strict ban on untreated municipal waste being sent to landfill. Landfilled organic waste is a big producer of methane gas, which is 24 times more damaging to our climate than CO2.”

    Herwart Wilms, REMONDIS Managing Director

Are there any concrete plans in this direction in the Green Deal?

  • Herwart Wilms: There are but we believe they may have overshot the mark here and are in danger of creating yet another mountain of red tape. The Circular Economy Action Plan aims to improve the availability of information about the products sold in the EU. So far, so good. The Commission has proposed introducing digital passports that should provide information about the origin and composition of a product as well as to what extent it can be repaired and dismantled and how it should be handled when it reaches the end of its useful life. This aims to make it easier for consumers to make sustainable purchases. However, there is not only a danger here of having disproportionately high information costs. A digital passport also creates an unnecessarily large obstacle, as it can’t simply be read on site at the shops and presumes that consumers are prepared to actively gather information about a product beforehand. REMONDIS believes a product label that provides information about a product’s sustainability and recyclability levels using the easy-to-understand traffic light labelling system is a more suitable solution to enable consumers to make sensible purchase decisions.

    • One example of what a universal recycling label could look like. It would make it easier for consumers to buy more sustainable products

  • Looking at it realistically though, it is going to take quite a while before all products meet the requirements you mentioned and consumers and public and industrial buyers fully adopt the principle of sustainability. What needs to be done in the meantime to minimise carbon emissions?

    Herwart Wilms: One thing we definitely need to have is a strict ban on untreated municipal waste being sent to landfill. Landfilled organic waste is a big producer of methane gas, which is 24 times more damaging to our climate than CO2. Germany has already shown how this can be done. It has been illegal to send untreated municipal waste to landfill here since 2005. Other countries have also been able to reduce the amount of their landfilled municipal waste to under 1% over the last few years. Unfortunately, this is not the case across the whole of the EU. In 2018, the share of landfilled municipal waste in Romania, for example, lay at over 70%. The EU average is 20%. Just taking Germany as an example, it can be seen that it is indeed possible to reduce the amount landfilled to below 1%. The EU has not acted quickly or systematically enough in this matter to make the most of the positive impact that recycling has on combating climate change. The European Green Deal provides the perfect opportunity here to harmonise the EU’s standards in this area. If effective efforts are to be made to tackle climate change, then it is essential that no waste be sent untreated to landfill. REMONDIS is calling for a Europe-wide landfill ban for untreated municipal waste to be added to the Green Deal or as an amendment to the Waste Framework Directive. Just two immediate positive side-effects of such a mandatory measure would be the creation of jobs and an increase in material recovery rates. It is precisely this kind of ‘low-hanging fruit’ that the Green Deal needs – both to make it a success and to underline its credibility.

If there were one thing you would like to see added to the Green Deal, what would it be?

Herwart Wilms: One thing that we really need to see is fair competition between all market players. The transition from a linear to a circular economy not only requires society as a whole to rethink the way they lead their lives, it also means large investments. The companies involved in restructuring the economic system will have to carry out extensive research and development work and set up the infrastructure needed. They will only be able to invest the large sums of money required if they know there is a high level of investment security. Which is why all of the plans in the Green Deal must ensure competitive neutrality. By the way, this also very much applies to the measures being taken to promote alternative fuels as they are key to carbon-neutral logistics. Simply for technical and physical reasons, we should not be limiting ourselves to just one form of fuel for the future, such as e-mobility. If the transition is to succeed, then we must remain open and unbiased and be smart about the way we use the existing infrastructure. The high levels of investment for the future can only be guaranteed once it is finally clear what the best mix of climate-friendly and most efficient technologies actually is.

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