A close look at how countries are progressing toward the EU’s goals of making economies reuse and recycle more while cutting down on waste shows unexpected leaders and laggards.
Poland and the Czech Republic rank near the top of POLITICO’s list of the EU’s most circular economies, while ostensibly green Nordic countries lag behind.
Brussels has been pushing the idea of a circular economy — one in which almost nothing is wasted — for years. In January, to get a sense of how well countries and the EU are doing in reaching that goal, the European Commission published metrics it plans to use to track an economy’s circularity.
In a circular economy, products last as long as possible, and when they need to be scrapped they are recycled and the materials are reused. As such, the measurements look at every stage of consumption and post-consumption.
These include how much garbage and food waste is produced, how much of that waste is recycled, and how much of that recycled material is actually reused. They also include the volume of recyclable materials traded, how many patents are filed having to do with the circular economy, and how many jobs are created in “circular economy sectors” (most of which are in repair and maintenance).
POLITICO researched the data for seven of the Commission’s key metrics and ranked each of the European Union’s 28 countries. For each criterion, a ranking of 1 through 28 was calculated, and the final index is an aggregation of all seven rankings weighted equally.
In general, countries with the highest circular economy scores — Germany, the U.K. and France respectively topped the ranking — have robust recycling systems and high levels of innovation in circular economy sectors. Bigger countries also tended to have higher circular economy scores, due in part to the fact that they have larger economies with more private investment and patents. The two metrics that most closely align with the final ranking are the number of patents and investment and jobs in circular economy sectors.
But countries that top the chart aren’t strictly the greenest: The circular economy ranking varies significantly from the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, which is produced in part by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and which ranks a broader range of environmental policies, from air pollution and emissions to agriculture and biodiversity.
This is partly because practices that reduce impact on health and the environment don’t necessarily contribute to circularity. For example, burning waste for energy, a common practice in Nordic countries, minimizes landfilling but doesn’t help boost recycling and reuse rates, so it’s not very circular and didn’t help a country’s ranking.
Another factor that reduces the circularity of Western and Northern European countries is their tendency to produce a lot of garbage. Although the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden rank fairly well in innovation and recycling, their scores are dragged down by high levels of waste and food waste. Meanwhile, the nine countries that produce the least waste are all from Central and Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic came fourth in the overall ranking, buoyed by having the third-lowest level of municipal waste and the fifth-lowest food waste score out of all 28 countries.
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