How many 'R's are there in the circular economy?

Most of us know the three ‘R’s of the circular economy: reduce, reuse and recycle. But did you know that in the EU there are only two? A number of EU documents, such as the Waste Framework Directive, dated 30 May 2018, make it clear that, as far as the EU is concerned, the circular economy consists of only two stages: reduce and reuse/recycle.

The rot started with the WEEE Directive in 2012 which combined the targets for preparation for reuse and recycling. This effectively fused two of the three pillars of the circular economy into one. A study of the WEEE Directive, published in April 2015, admitted: “Member States and involved stakeholders (e.g. collective schemes for WEEE) can thus reach the targets by favouring recycling over preparation for re-use. The option of preparing for reuse might be neglected.”

Another problem with the WEEE Directive is it did not include products that were not classified as waste but could be reused. Only products considered as waste for preparation for reuse were covered by the directive. As a consequence, not all reused products could be included in WEEE targets.

But as the study pointed out, “products which can be reused directly or which require further preparation for reuse operations before reuse are handled by the same stakeholders, and the distinction between the two may be very difficult in practice.”

“There is no drive for reuse for the manufacturers,” says Philip McMichael, CEO at IT asset disposal and recycling business, AMI. “There are no separate targets for the reuse of equipment. It doesn’t count towards the targets. That’s frustrating because it should be the first target for all electrical equipment.”

He argues, quite rightly, that reuse is the best option for equipment. “The longer a piece of equipment can be used, the better. It’s the best thing to use it for as long as possible. There should be no desire to destroy equipment, it should always be reused [if possible].”

Right now, there are efforts by organisations such as RREUSE, a network of social enterprises active in reuse, repair and recycling, to try and introduce separate targets for the reuse and recycling of equipment. There is a discussion on setting separate targets for reuse and the issue has to be investigated by the European Commission by 2025, but that seems a long way off from today.

Mathieu Rama, senior policy officer at RREUSE, says the organisation is “trying to speed up the process” and is calling on member states to set their own national targets. Very few regions or countries have done that to date.

The complication over the distinction between reuse and preparation for reuse also needs to be addressed because it makes it harder to implement harmonised reporting for any proposed reuse targets.

An interesting discussion that the waste regime opens up is whether product that is refurbished, functioning and ready to be sold (either because it is reused or prepared for reuse), should be taken out of the waste classification altogether because it is clearly not waste anymore. Which, when you think about it, would reduce the three ‘R’s to two after all – and it would also separate reuse from the recycle targets!