Industrial development is a widely perceived global engine for growth. However, without systematically pairing it with sustainable development, it only exacerbates the current trends of global linear consumption, advancing climate emergency, massive and unsustainable consumption of resources, and population growth. To decouple economic growth and social well-being from environmental degradation and unsustainable development, alternatives such as the application of the principles and practices of Circular Economy are required for industries and society alike.
Circular Economy is an industrial economy which returns products, parts, resources, and materials into use several times. Based on the precepts that products can be designed to last, that their value can be maintained for as long as possible, and the generation of waste from their production could be minimised, Circular Economy provides a substantial contribution to addressing the global climate crisis, and advances the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In this sense, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) plays an active role in mobilizing finance, technology, and capacity-building to promote Circular Economy principles and practices in developing countries. These principles are applicable to all economies, regardless of their level of industrialization, and all actors alike (governments, businesses, and consumers). UNIDO promotes the concept that every product, its parts, and materials circulating in our economies should have multiple lives, helping retain their value in the economy, and creating new business opportunities while safeguarding the environment.
To this scope, recycling plays a role in the transition towards a Circular Economy. By turning waste into new resources and reintroducing them into the production chains, recycling ensures that industries intensify the use of resources and contribute to recovery of materials. This, in turn, provides economic opportunities together with environmental and social benefits.
As a main driver for circularity, UNIDO promotes change in the design and production practices of industries and manufacturers. Upon a closer look into the recycling rates of various materials: metals, for example, offer the possibility of indefinite recycling (about 67% of steel is produced from recycled iron/steel, and about 70% of aluminium is recycled). Other materials have OK-to-good recycling rates, such as post-consumer paper waste (50% recycled), glass (20%), or plastics (where less than 2% being recycled). What is more, only 1% of textile waste resulting from the production of fabrics and garments is properly recycled. 19% is down-cycled (rags, stuffing, etc.), with the remaining majority being incinerated or landfilled.
In response to these sobering numbers, the countries of the Eastern Partnership region, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine, are investing efforts in environment-related actions, unlocking opportunities for greener growth, and setting mechanisms to better manage environmental risks and impacts.
In Armenia, for instance, where the environmental and health threats created by plastic pollution are some of the most important challenges nationwide (with 5000 tons of polyethylene waste being collected, more than 622 tons of polyethylene bags being imported, and 201 tons being produced, all annually), the Ministry of Environment recently submitted a legislative package to ban the use of plastic bags in 2023. The recent legislation also banned the provision of free polyethylene bags from July 1 and introduced a special tax for plastic bags from January 1, 2020.
Comparable efforts were also noted in Azerbaijan. The concept of Circular Economy has been at the core of the recently approved presidential orders, the “National Strategy for the Improvement of Solid Waste Management in the Republic of Azerbaijan for 2018-2022” and “The Action Plan on reducing negative environmental impacts of plastic packaging waste in the Republic of Azerbaijan: 2019-2020”. The two pieces of legislation have led to the amendment of the “Law on the Environment Protection” in November 2020. As a result, the import, manufacturing, and trade of plastic bags (up to 15 microns), as well as single use plastic (forks, spoons, knives, plates, cups) are now prohibited nationwide. The prohibition on plastic bags came into force on January 1, 2021, and from July 1, 2021, the one on the rest of the plastic-related items will follow. Apart from these legal documents, it is also worth mentioning the “Azerbaijan 2030: National Priorities for Socio-Economic Development concept”, which was approved by presidential order on February 2, 2021. Among its key objectives, the Azerbaijan 2030 concept focuses on clean environment and green growth.
Similar efforts were also recorded in Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. In Belarus, the Government introduced new measures to gradually reduce the use of polymer packaging and encourage recycling. Starting from January 1, 2021, the Action Plan No. 7 prohibits the use and sale of disposable plastic tableware in catering facilities. This aims at reducing the volume of plastic tableware waste, and the anthropogenic burden on the environment. Other notable steps include the elaboration of a recycling policy for the National Circular Economy Strategy, the introduction of deposit-refund system for beverage packaging (amending the technical regulation on packaging in terms of its eco-design), and the investment in the construction of regional complex recycling facilities. The existing recycling policies include the extended producer responsibility scheme (embracing 56 products and having elements of eco-modulation such as preferential fee for biodegradable plastic packaging), subsidizing prices on secondary raw materials, the ban on the use and sale of disposable plastic tableware, and so on.
In Georgia, the national Executive adopted the National Waste Management Strategy for 2016-2030 and the National Action Plan for 2016-2020. Together, the two provide a target timeline for recycling certain materials at the national level. The National Waste Strategy states that by 2020, the country should be recycling 30% of plastic, by 2025, 50%, and by 2030, 80%, respectively. According to the Strategy, companies should also be urged to take preventive measures against the production of waste by 2020; by 2025, there should be establishments for generating energy from the waste materials that have not been reused or recycled. This aims to make the Georgian waste management industry fully self-sufficient by 2030 by initiating a system in which both the population and the private sector can fully cover their own expenses. Additionally, as part of the provisions of the Article 9 of the Waste management Code of Georgia (entered into force on December 1, 2019), the Extended Producer Responsibility obliges now all manufacturers who place a product into the Georgian market, to reduce the negative environmental impact that may follow its production, use, waste, recovery, or disposal.
As for the Republic of Moldova, each year, about 3 million m3 of household and commercial waste (plastic, paper, metal, and biological waste) is thrown away. With only 10% being sorted and recycled, the remaining majority is dumped in about 1000 landfills across the country. To respond to these challenges, the authorities have gradually introduced restrictions on the use of plastic bags, starting from January 1, 2019. Moldova also approved the draft for the National Development Strategy “Moldova 2030”, submitting it for adoption in June 2020. The Strategy calls for an inclusive, sustainable, and digital economic development. Regulations on waste from Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), batteries and packaging, among others, have been introduced in Moldova under the Law on Waste. By 2027, the authorities aim to create waste collection services, reduce the amount of waste from landfills, and promote recycling in accordance with European Union requirements. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has provided a € 100 million loan to the Republic of Moldova specifically to this cause, to develop waste management systems and implement the relevant strategy.
The alarming numbers also put pressure on the Ukrainian Government to take responsible decisions on waste management. Annually, Ukraine generates over 50 million cubic meters of waste, with 94% percent being landfilled in 6,000 dumps, covering a total area of nearly 9,000 hectares. As a consequence, Verkhovna Rada is considering new drafts of the existing laws on waste management, prevention, reduction, and control over pollution resulting from industries. At the same time, there are relevant considerations over the restrictions on the circulation of plastic bags throughout Ukraine. The adoption of such prohibitive laws would considerably reduce the burden on the environment as a whole. Conscious consumption, recycling, and the safe disposal of waste would secure both the human health and the environment. The draft laws also set the key principles on the waste management system, creating the necessary ground to extend the responsibility boundaries of product manufacturers and the prerequisites needed to attract investments in the recycling industry.
In this context, the RECP methodology, a stepping stone in the implementation of Circular Economy practices, becomes one of the main tools for green transformation, providing national businesses with efficient solutions to reduce waste generation. Throughout the EaP region, the EU-funded “EU4Environment” Action ensures that resource efficiency assessments are conducted with close attention to the use of materials (including their source and perspective utility). As an example, in the case of packaging materials, under RECP, their further processing is also considered from the product environmental footprint point of view. In this sense, the RECP methodology provides a firm and structured approach to determine the potential saving of materials, as well as waste reduction (minimization) by avoiding the use of non-recyclable materials.
To ensure the practical application of the ongoing legislation reforms which target waste minimization, improved environmental performance, and, specifically, the reduction of pollution, the “EU4Environment” works directly with manufacturing SMEs and communities in the EaP region. The in-plant RECP audits enable producers and industry staff to improve skills, reconsider waste as a resource, and reduce the overall impact of industries on the environment.