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The Commission’s Sustainable Products Initiative: Europe on track towards its circular economy?

Last week, the European Commission published its long awaited Sustainable Products Initiative (SPI), marking a major step towards meeting the European Union’s Circular Economy goals and facilitating strategic autonomy of the continent. The newly proposed Regulation aims to introduce Ecodesign requirements for all products placed on the EU market, with the sole exception of food, feed and medicinal products. Up until now, only energy and energy-related products have been covered by the Ecodesign Directive, tackling the energy performance of the products in question.

The SPI represents the European solution to overarching environmental challenges of resource depletion and environmental pollution linked to the production, consumption, and disposal of products. For the past decade, reports have repeatedly highlighted the need for extensive measures to reduce the continuous increase in greenhouse emissions. Even today, the average European citizen continues to generate more than 5 tons of household waste every year, representing precious raw materials which have reached their end of life and undergo end of life treatment. Via the SPI, the Commission is now providing a concrete path forward to put the EU on track towards a truly circular economy.

The landmark act goes above and beyond existing provisions of the current Ecodesign Directive, by seeking to make all products more sustainable and aiming at preventing the destruction of unsold consumer goods. These unsold goods, along with millions of other electronic and household products which are unable to be repaired, not only contribute to the depletion of the Earth’s finite resources, but also tighten the grip of the EU’s dependency on imports from third countries. By extending the lifespan of products and making them circular by design, the Commission is closing the loop and making sure precious resources, such as rare critical raw materials, remain within the EU’s borders.

As such, the initiative lays the basis for the introduction of Ecodesign requirements for all products. These requirements include making products repairable, reusable and recyclable, and the phasing out of hazardous substances in consumer products. The proposal also introduces a Digital Product Passport for all products, providing both the consumer and recycler with information regarding the repair or recycling of the given product. This information will be regularly updated by the manufacturer regarding the product safety, repairability or end of life treatment of their product. Goal is to enable a transparent access to information for all actors and to generate positive effects across the products’ value chain.

Commissioner for the Single Market Thierry Breton has also highlighted the expected positive, job-generating impact of the proposal on the European economy, by stating that “greater resource and energy efficiency in the construction and textile sectors in particular will generate highly skilled jobs across Europe”.

Following the publication of the act, stakeholders have nonetheless highlighted possible upcoming challenges for the European industry, such as the possible cross-over with current sector-specific legislation, threats to intellectual property rights, and ensuring the technical feasibility of the upcoming requirements. Business Europe for instance welcomed the Commission’s proposal as a “great initiative to boost the EU’s market for secondary raw materials”.

Orgalim, representing the European technology industry, also highlighted the Initiative’s contribution to strengthening Europe’s “competitive advantage” by shifting to sustainable production and consumption patterns. The sector nonetheless called the attention towards the need for the protection of European Intellectual Property Rights regarding confidential business information on products, stating that these must be guaranteed in particular in the context of the Digital Product Passport.

The textile industry has also brought forward the need to strike a balance between implementation and ambition of the Commission’s proposal. Euratex stated that if wrongly implemented, the upcoming requirements “may cause a complete collapse” of the sector under the burden of restrictions, requirements and costs.

NGOs such as the European Environmental Bureau on the other hand condoned the “failure” of the Sustainable Products Initiative to “address social and due diligence aspects within the Digital Product Passport”.

In the European Parliament, Italian Socialist MEP Simona Bonafè, alongside the S&D Group, welcomed the initiative but suggested strengthening the act by proposing binding EU targets for 2030 to significantly reduce the EU material and consumption footprints and bring them within planetary boundaries by 2050.

The Commission’s proposal thus represents a milestone in the EU’s path towards a more circular and sustainable future, and contributes to positioning the EU as a frontrunner in sustainable product policy. The act will now be up for discussion in the European Parliament and Council of the EU within the following months, where the institutions will have the opportunity to further shape the future of the EU’s product policy.

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