Fears prevent successful circular economy

Researchers Machteld Simoens and Junior Professor Dr. Sina Leipold from the Chair of Societal Transition & Circular Economy at the University of Freiburg have analyzed the political discussions toward a future circular economy in the German packaging industry. In their study, they provide explanatory approaches as to why the previous packaging law contributes little to the circular economy and is perceived by many as a disappointment. In addition, they propose an approach for action to nevertheless advance the transition toward a circular economy. Their work recently appeared in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.

The Packaging Ordinance had been in existence in Germany since 1991, regulating, among other things, packaging waste management. In 2011, the German government came up with the idea of replacing the ordinance with the so-called recyclables act to promote the circular economy and recycling of materials. The law would allow packaging waste to be disposed of and recycled along with other waste made from the same materials that would otherwise end up in residual waste. For example, watering cans and toothbrushes could have been thrown away in the recycling garbage can together with classic packaging waste from the yellow bag. But instead of a recyclables law, the German Packaging Act came into force at the beginning of 2019 as the successor to the Packaging Ordinance. The new law is not satisfactory for many stakeholders from politics, business and civil society, however, because from their point of view it does not contain any major changes and only makes a minor contribution to the circular economy.

“Policymakers have been caught up in disputes between proponents of a private and a public waste collection system for over seven years,” says Machteld Simoens. The researcher interviewed involved political actors and evaluated position papers on the packaging law. While the disposal of packaging waste through the “yellow bag” is organized privately, the responsibility for paper, residual and organic waste lies with the municipalities. “While both sides support the idea of a recycling garbage can, they do not want to cede responsibility for it to the other. The parties involved are afraid of radical changes,” says Simoens. According to the researchers, these fears led to a deadlock in negotiations. Viewpoints and arguments became repetitive and entrenched. “To break out of the deadlock, legislators traded radical policy reform in the form of a recyclables law for a less ambitious packaging law. Unfortunately, many conflicts and challenges of the circular economy remain unresolved for all parties involved,” says Sina Leipold. For example, she says, the problem of steadily growing mountains of waste has not been addressed.

In order to nevertheless create the change to an effective circular economy, the scientists propose a dialogue between the two camps using the backcasting method to reduce fears and overcome differences. This method is used to jointly define criteria for a sustainable future, which then serve as guides for concrete implementation measures. “In the process, planning is done from the ideal state to the actual state. Meanwhile, step by step, points are found where the various stakeholders are willing to compromise,” says Machteld Simoens. Potential conflicts could thus be eliminated in advance.

Original publication

Simoens, Machteld, Leipold, Sina (2021). Trading Radical for Incremental Change: The Politics of a Circular Economy Transition in the German Packaging Sector. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/mvx5q

Policy brief

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