MEP Jan Huitema: Economic growth and recycling can go hand in hand

circular economy, plastic, Natural resource, European Commission, European Parliament

Dutch MEP Jan Huitema during the plenary session of European Parliament. / Photo via Alexis HAULOT [© European Union 2021 - Source : EP]

It’s fixed that in 2050 we should stay within our planetary boundaries. If we continue like this in terms of using natural resources, we’ll need not two but three planets, says Jan Huitema* Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament in an interview with



Karolina Zbytniewska, The potential annual energy savings that could be achieved from recycling all global plastic waste are equivalent to 3.5 billion barrels of oil per year.

How does the EU plan to improve the role of energy efficiency and thus reduce both the material and carbon footprint of products?

Jan Huitema: We are now very much in a linear model: we produce a lot and then it goes to waste. So for us, in our report, it was about lowering the use of resources; for example, if you talk about plastics, it’s mainly about oil. And you can prevent the use of oil in many different ways.

We have to prevent products from going to waste. We have to try to find a way to longer durability of products or make sure that we can share products among each other – that would be called a lease economy, in which we don’t own products but we lease them.

Moreover, if something is broken, then maybe it could be repaired in a simple way, or if it’s more complicated, we should give the information to the ones that repair products. Much more transparency and information is needed.

Also, we should give the consumers a right to have their products repaired and provide longer guarantee periods. Only then, we can think about recycling. But there are two main obstacles to why products are often not recycled: the price and the availability of valuable and safe products.

Plastics account for 80-85 percent of the waste found in the European Union’s marine environment. Single-use plastic items account for half of this. What’s the response of the EU, its member states, and businesses? What should it be to become more effective?

The main thing, of course, is that we should prevent plastics from going into nature – collection and separation is the key issue here. Secondly, we are looking into the design of products in such a way that they can be recycled more easily. 80 percent of the environmental impact is determined by the design of a product.

We want to set minimum standards for the recyclability of products so that at the end of the lifecycle they can be recycled in an easier way. We would also like to set minimum standards for how much recycled content a product has, and it should concern not only European producers but also companies from third countries that export to the EU.

We’re also talking about single-use plastics. Some of them we’ll be banned, but there is a discussion about whether the ban should be expanded or not. We’re asking the Commission to come forward with a single-use plastics directive.

Another important aspect are exports of our waste. In that case, I believe we should solve our own problems, we cannot export our problems to third countries. We should set standards and requirements for the export of waste.

You said that during the pandemic the price of oil is low, and therefore, it is much more tempting to use fossil fuels to make plastics. Do you think that in the long run, the pandemic may have a negative effect on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan?

Yes and no. It is true that during the coronacrisis, the oil prices were very low. I mentioned that more virgin plastics were produced instead of recyclable plastics. However, I do feel that the circular economy is on the agenda of politicians and companies.

They see the momentum now as we want to invest in our economy to prevent an economic depression. There’s quite a lot of public money available that we should invest in a more circular economy. I see a lot of chances there, as well.

And what I do hope, apart from setting standards on how much recycled content a product should have, is that we’ll create a demand for secondary raw materials and shift away from the use of virgin materials.

However, I do see that we should also think about our market instruments to stimulate the use of secondary raw materials. One example that we mention in our report is a rewarding system for companies. It says that if you use the secondary material instead of using oil, you can get some kind of reward because you reduce the emission of CO2.

Meadhbh Bolger from the think tank Friends of Europe said that “The Von der Leyen Commission’s plan for the circular economy is out of touch with the reality and urgency of the planetary emergency.

It will fail to reduce resource consumption – as the previous one did – because it is written to satisfy the demands of endless economic growth, over the needs of people and the natural world”. How can you refer to this statement?

It’s logical. You can see by the figures that we absolutely are not there yet. I think that only 8-10 percent of waste is recycled at the moment, so there’s a long way to go. But I don’t agree with that statement. Economic growth and recycling can go hand in hand. Economic growth and reduced use of natural resources can go hand in hand.

Moreover, I believe that the circular economy would be beneficial for the European Union’s economy. We are not a continent with a lot of natural resources, we don’t rely on low-wage labor, but what we have is a lot of innovation power; we have a lot of knowledge. And that is the essence of the circular economy. I believe that if we don’t scale up to a more circular economy, the EU will lose its competitive position in the world.

In our report, we are asking the European Commission to come up with intermediate targets.

For instance, both my country and Finland decided that by 2030 they want to reduce the use of primary resources by 50 percent. We mentioned in our report that maybe the Commission can learn from this example and try to find ways to do it at the European level.

For us, it’s fixed that in 2050 we should stay within our planetary boundaries. If we continue like this in terms of using natural resources, we’ll need not two but three planets.

The latest report of the Supreme Audit Office in Poland says: „There is little chance for a quick implementation of the circular economy model in our country. The slow pace of conceptual and legislative work by both the minister of climate and the minister of development does not give hope for their immediate completion”.

What perspective do you see for the countries that lag behind? How can we, as citizens, contribute to the implementation of the circular economy?

Citizens have the power to change. They can make the right choices in buying those products that are recyclable or contain recycled content. Another crucial aspect is transparency. We mentioned it in our report and it’s also in the Action Plan of the Commission, that we should come forward with an eco-label.

The problem is that now we have thousands of eco-labels, whereas we should have one that is guaranteed by the EU. This is quite a complex process because there are different layers within the whole supply chain.

Still, it all has to do with good indicators to measure whether the product is circular or not – it should be clear to the consumers. This is a huge task, but I believe that it can be done.

Tackling the issue of plastics is an undoubtedly global problem that crosses European borders. Could you tell us a bit more about the international plan of setting an alliance on the circular economy and resource efficiency?

This is of course a global problem. We as the European Union don’t live on an island and we have to deal with this. I do believe that the European market which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest market in the world, can be a tremendous stimulus for companies all around the world to scale up their circular perspective. As long as they want to export to the European market, they have to fulfill certain standards.

The whole supply chain for many products is very international but all the different stakeholders should follow these rules; otherwise, it won’t be circular. I think the European Union may have an impact on the rest of the world, which happens in other areas, such as animal welfare.

More on the political side: we have to discuss free trade agreements, maybe we should have new conventions or maybe we should have a Paris Agreement on plastics. And once again, the EU should not export its plastic waste to other countries, but import secondary materials that we can use again as a resource.

In the New Circular Economy Action Plan Report report, you urge the Commission to introduce many new solutions. Which measures will be especially hard to pass on to the binding EU level and which will pose a major challenge to national producers?

Like we mentioned in our report, we should provide an instrument. It should be very product-specific. We won’t set the target ourselves, it should be done by the experts within the European Commission and from different stakeholders. But everybody agrees that something should be done.

The European Parliament gives a very strong mandate to do this, all the political parties were in favor of this – from the 705 MEPs, only 25 voted against it. In the coming two years, it is very important to understand that there is no legislation yet. We are asking the European Commission to come forward with their proposals.

At this moment, stakeholders and companies should inform us and give us their positions so that we can see how we can come up with good solutions together. You’re right: there will be some problems. I’m sure that if there’s no support from businesses and consumers, we will not succeed.


* Jan Huitema, Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament from Renew Europe Group. He is a member of Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of European Parliament. 


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