Good afternoon and thank you for that introduction. It’s great to be back here – this conference is becoming a regular feature on the annual calendar. It’s always pleasing to see a packed house, and I’m told that we were fully booked even earlier than last year. So we must be doing something right!
I know we’re starting to get it right, because wherever I travel around the world, I see the circular economy taking shape on the ground.
So we are not talking about progress in Brussels, although there is plenty of that. We’re talking about real change in the real world. Changes among policy makers, businesses local and regional administrations, NGOs and ordinary citizens. In location after location, I have come across the circular economy in action.
There are great examples from the private sector. You might have heard of Ecoalf. They are a textile start-up based in Madrid. Their business model is based on turning marine litter and plastic waste into garments, and selling them as high-end, designer clothes. Recently, they have committed to implementing strategies right at the very beginning of the lifecycle to create more circular products and to better inform consumers so they can use their products for as long as possible.
In Italy I was impressed to find out about LIFE projects that helped to change national legislation on food waste prevention and donation. Supermarkets and restaurants can donate unsold food that is past its ‘best before’ date to charity.
And the Eco-Points Initiative – a collaboration project between supermarkets and an NGO – greatly reduces packaging by offering everyday products, such as pasta, rice and cereals, in a bulk format through direct dispensers.
I have also seen what can be done when we work together. Take the example of the H2020 project Paperchain, with partners all across Europe, to foster novel circular economy models by transforming the waste of the paper industry into a valuable resource for other industries such as construction or the chemical industry.
The congratulations quite rightly go to those on the ground. The Commission can take some of the credit. We have now delivered on approximately 80% of the content of the Circular Economy Action Plan, and those changes are filtering through. And best of all, the level of commitment to make the transition towards a circular economy a reality is spreading ever wider.
We are doing all we can to keep up the momentum.
A month ago, the Commission adopted a third package of Circular Economy measures.
I won’t go over all the contents, but I will single out three. First of all, I see the monitoring framework as a particularly significant step. It’s going to help us see the bigger picture, with a framework to track the transition not just at EU level, but right down to country level as well. This will help identify any gaps we need to close.
Secondly, there’s the work at the interface of legislation for chemicals, products and waste. We really need to get this right. Right for the health and safety of recyclates. Right for recyclers and the added value of the products they make.
So we are making sure we have all the relevant information. We have to address the barriers such as lack of information about substances of concern, and their presence in recycled materials. We have to get it right, because it will be vital to help us use more secondary raw materials.
And thirdly, there is the new Strategy for Plastics. I am extremely proud of this, because it’s one of the best results the Commission has delivered in recent years. We reached 30 million people directly in our announcement of the strategy. The Public reaction has been almost uniformly positive.
We will continue that outreach this year. We will continue our work with European aquariums and the UN Environment Programme to sensitive people to the impact of plastic in the ocean.
The appetite for a new type of plastics economy, and for better protection of the marine environment, is huge. Across the EU, citizens want to see reuse and recycling activities truly integrated into production chains, delivering greater added value and prosperity for our plastics industry.
As I see it, this success is built on a can do approach. We avoided demonising the material. Instead we emphasised that economic and environmental goals should be united in this instance, with everyone on board. One pressure group can’t solve a problem on this scale. We need national, regional, and local authorities to come together with the private sector - and with citizens - to get results.
The headline objective of the strategy is to make all plastics packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.
And there is plenty more is to come. The next big target is single use plastics.
Together with fishing gear, these single use items make up half of all the litter found on EU beaches. The target is clear, so we are taking aim with a new instrument to tackle the problem.
Success is going to depend on stopping plastic waste like bottles, cutlery and cups and lids from entering our environment, on land and on sea.
This new initiative is being shaped as I speak, and we aim to adopt it in May. Input from the public consultation, which closed last week, will help us optimise the approach.
That’s what lies ahead, but let’s gets back to today, and the session ahead. We are asking a very important question. How can groups like businesses, companies, and public authorities contribute to the transition?
As a Commission, we want to provide the tools and to set the framework. That way we encourage a switch to new business models, encourage new partnerships, and bring the relevant actors to the table.
This has to be an inclusive process, and that means dialogue. It means discussions between engineers and recyclers, between producers and converters, between retailers and consumers. These are the people who will make it happen.
So what are we looking for in these discussions?
First of all, we need good examples. We need major players to come forward with quantifiable pledges for their own individual businesses. That will demonstrate the economic case for the transition.
We need our volunteers to engage with others and come up with voluntary commitments across sectors and along the value chains. That’s going to highlight the closing of the loop.
And secondly, we need these volunteers to sign up to transformative and measureable actions going beyond business as usual. That will show that the ambition is there, that Europe believes in this future.
We already have a pledging campaign to boost the uptake of recycled plastics. This should ensure that by 2025, ten million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into new products on the EU market. That’s a great start, and my heart-felt thanks to those involved.
But it is only a start, and we need to get up to speed. We need more action in other areas, where the potential is largely untapped, like packaging and textiles. And we need actions by public authorities as well.
In a few minutes, we’ll be hearing about the drivers for these commitments, the challenges and the barriers. We’ll explore the role of public authorities and businesses towards voluntary actions, and we’ll see how policy makers can help.
For example, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environmental Affairs in Spain is encouraging companies to commit to reducing the use of natural resources, to mainstream eco-design criteria and to foster innovation around sustainable production and consumption. So far, around 200 companies have signed up for this achievement.
You probably know that France too is looking to engage stakeholders in the preparations for their 'roadmap for a circular economy'.
The Commission too is here to help. The European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, a joint initiative with the European Economic and Social Committee, offers a framework to collect these commitments. It’s the ideal place for stakeholders to learn from each other. It’s open to all, and is designed to facilitate the sharing of good practices, strategies and studies.
Take a look at the website, share your own best practices and learn from the experiences of others. And tomorrow is a chance to engage in cafe-style discussions. I hope you can use it to learn, to share, to engage and to explore.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will stop here. I hope I’ve stressed how much we see this transition as a collaborative enterprise, which is going to be good for all of us.
One final thought. Let’s keep that European dimension in mind. This is a global movement, but it’s going to be good for European countries – provided we dare to embrace it. Let's use this conference to take that idea even further, and set out our stall for the world.
No hesitation. Let’s take the plunge. Let's safeguard those benefits for people, for the environment, and for our economy.
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