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Are volunteers enough to clean up Europe’s litter?

This Saturday is Clean up Europe Day, writes  Ariadna Rodrigo. All across Europe volunteers will pick up litter from streets, parks and coasts. It is an undoubtedly important initiative – raising public awareness about waste and what we can do to reduce it and engaging citizens to clean up locally – but is it addressing the root causes of the problem? Should Europe rely on volunteers to pick up litter, or should it introduce waste prevention targets, and mandatory deposit return schemes to curb waste for good? 

The litter on our streets is only one way of mismanaging resources. According to the latest Eurostat figures, Europe’s system of consumption continues to be predominately linear. Europe buries and burns 58% of waste. In other words, materials are extracted, produced, consumed and then disposed of as cheaply as possible. This reliance on landfill and incineration means valuable, non-renewable resources are escaping the economic cycle, in an extremely environmentally destructive manner.

As a result, Europe is one of the continents most dependent on resources from outside its borders. It is also one of the biggest consumers of these resources per capita. Europe is heavily dependent on cheap and abundant imported resources – very harmful for the global environment and also the European economy.

The European Commission’s highly anticipated circular economy package needs to provide solutions. Friends of the Earth Europe and the organisations Reuse, Zero waste, the European Environmental Bureau, Seas at risk, Surfrider, Greenpeace and Ecos are united in calling for a strong legislative waste framework, which provides the right incentives to both governments and companies so that Europe can transform the way it uses resources.

Europe needs a truly circular economy; designing products for reuse and repair, introducing reuse targets and increasing our recycling to 70% at least targets (in regions like in Flanders this is already a reality); incentivising separate waste collection; reducing material consumption, and stopping environmentally harmful subsidies such as those used to build incinerators and landfills.

The benefits are too big to ignore – from protecting the environment from litter, preventing further extraction of resources, making the economy less dependent on the availability of cheap materials, increasing resilience to price fluctuations, and creating up to 860,000 jobs in Europe, especially needed in some countries with unemployment rates as high as 25%.

In these economically challenging times, nobody doubts the benefits that a true circular economy could bring to Europe. The good will of citizens picking litter this Saturday should be reflected in strong legislative proposals that tackle the root cause, and not just the symptoms.

Ariadna Rodrigo is resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe

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