At the biggest annual conference on European environmental policy now taking place in Brussels, the focus is on re-use and recycling. In a world of scarcer resources, it is becoming essential to use less and use again.
EU environment chief Potocnik says smart resource use is "common sense"
Water, food, oil, rare earths – almost all of the world's natural resources are becoming scarcer as the world's population, and its appetites, grow. During this year's Green Week in Brussels, the EU is advocating greater efficiency in the use of natural resources.
Less is more, the thinking goes, and EU officials are insisting that recycling can be both environmentally friendly and good for business.
In front of EU headquarters on Tuesday, Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik showed the journalists assembled there a rather odd creature - a large, tentacled monster made out of plastic bags and cups meant to illustrate the problem with out-of-control waste and an unsustainable European lifestyle.
The Green Week monster
Europeans in general use more than 500 plastic bags per year, Potocnik said, which is both a problem for the environment and a waste of valuable resources.
This year's Green Week, the EU's annual conference on European environmental policy, is about plastic, but also looks at the larger issues around the efficient use of natural resources, which Potocnik called nothing less than good common sense.
New thinking for the future
"Whatever kind of activity it is, at some point we're going to be confronted with the question of the efficient use of resources," he said. "How are we going to deal with that? What kind of economic signals are we going to send to producers, to consumers? Are these signals going to encourage efficient, sustainable resource use?"
Potocnik then went on to answer his own question with a resounding "no."
"I think we are far away from that. We need an agenda that completely changes the whole game," he said, adding that the goal was nothing less than a green economy.
Europeans use on average 500 plastic bags per year
The sectors which have the biggest influence on the environment and human health are energy, transportation and food, he said. And all of these need water.
"Take agriculture, for example. More than 80 percent of the water in southern Europe is used for agriculture," he said. "I am convinced that water is going to be a central issue in the future."
The recommendations resulting from the conference, which has brought together more than 3,000 policy-makers, economists, university researchers and media representatives, are meant to directly influence future EU policy.
Roadmaps for water and energy use have already been drawn up and soon one for resource efficiency will be released.
But the EU's environment point man warned that the improving sustainability with limited natural resources would only be accomplished if policy makers in the fields of water, energy, the environment and agriculture worked closely together toward a common goal.
"These issues belong together, and we can't tackle them in isolation," he said. "That applies for environmental policy as a whole as well as economic policy."
In the past, offices and departments largely worked separately - in individual "silos" – which proved a major hurdle in formulating effective policy.
"Everyone was interested in pursuing his or her own interests," Potocnik said. "But in the long term, that causes problems in other sectors, for example, the environment."
Old mobile phones are a gold mine of valuable, recyclable metals
He said he hopes that policy-makers will start taking environmental considerations into account at the very beginning of their decision-making process, not at the end.
Recycling – no other choice
On the other side of EU headquarters, a recycling pavilion had been set up where old mobile phones can be deposited. Holding up a disused phone, Potocnik said it wasn't just trash for the dumpster, but more like a gold mine for valuable metals.
"Our raw materials are limited and if we want our economy to remain fully functioning and meet our needs, we don't have any choice but to recycle."
Professor Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, co-chair of the United Nations Environment Programme's Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, also stressed the importance of increasing the productivity of natural resources through recycling.
There is much room for improvement, he said, noting that less than one percent of the rare metals and earths used in the solar and wind energy sectors are recycled.
Just as important, he said, is a whole new attitude toward resource use. The panel said it was necessary to "decouple" economic growth rates from rates of resource use. It noted that the extraction of ores and minerals grew 27-fold during the 20th century – a rate higher than world economic growth.
Author: Irene Quaile (jam)
Editor: Guy Degen