Efficient waste management is a key component for closing the consuming circle, and a circular economy could boost EU’s economy with billions and benefit the environment. Ljubljana shows how it’s possible.

You might think your trash is just waste. If so, think again. Waste is a potential resource and an opportunity for Europe. Circular Economy is actually a €500-billion- opportunity estimated the Ellen MacArhur Foundation in 2012 in the report “Towards a Circular Economy: Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition”.

But to achieve circular economy, you need to think of your waste as a resource. Waste is not the end. It starts over again. That’s also what they believe in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. They’ve just upgraded their waste management site with EU funding to state of the art-level. Combined with one of Europe’s highest waste sorting levels, you have a formula for a success.

”Our waste management system is advanced, effective and perfected and residents have adopted the habit of collecting waste separately – but it wasn’t that way ten or even five years ago. We’ve been developing waste management system and educating residents for at least ten years and finally the results are here,” says Tamara Vidic Perko, project manager at the local waste management company Snaga.

Last year, Ljubljana toped the ranking of EU capitals on collection rates of municipal waste with 55.4 percentage. In comparison, the average in EU28 was only 19 percentage “resulting in a huge loss of valuable raw materials” a press release from European Commission stated, who in 2015 adopted a Circular Economy Strategy.

“It shows the importance of political will. They (the top scoring capitals) show that moving from old-fashioned disposal to more intelligent waste treatment can happen relatively quickly, with no need for a lengthy period of adaptation. All EU Member States can embrace the circular economy approach in their waste policies”, encourages Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs in the same press release.

From waste to resource

Ljubljana was in 2014 the first EU-capital to adopt a zero-waste ambition and is currently working on introducing the ‘Zero Waste philosophy’ in public places, workplaces and at events.

“Zero Waste basically means zero waste for deposit sites and incinerators plants and boost prevention of waste production and promotion of reuse and recycling,” says Tamara Vidic Perko from Snaga.

Over the last 10 years, Snaga has six-doubled the quantity of separately collected waste per person and the decline in residual waste is ongoing. Adding to that, the newly updated waste management center, RCERO, is the shining beacon in an ambitious waste plan.

“We’ve developed an advanced, effective door-to-door collection system that gives excellent results and we are planning to upgrade waste collection system with ‘mini collection centers’,” says Perko.

The upgrade of RCERO mustered €160 million in investments, with two thirds coming from EU funds. The upgrade enables the waste management center to prevent pollution in the ground water, reduce the amount of landfilled waste six-fold and reduce release of of greenhouse gas. Furthermore, RCERO now creates green electricity from renewable biogas, solid fuel from waste and compost for use in city green spaces and gardening.

Putting waste on agenda, promoting reuse and recycling and simply turning waste into resource again is an effort that’s being recognized in Brussels. The admirable waste management was one of the reasons behind Ljubljana being elected by the European Commission to be Green Capital of Europe in 2016 and Ljubljana could be a model for the future.

 Late entry turned into an advantage

Back in Slovenia, it’s not only the local municipalities and companies, who are working on eliminating waste. The NGO Zero Waste Europe works on reducing waste all over Europe and have national member in most of the member states. They’re trying to spread good practice and connecting the right people.

“Waste is often an overlooked opportunity,” says Jaka Kranjc, secretary general of Zero Waste Slovenia.

But there are challenges in getting people to change their mind about what earlier just been trash.

“People are resistant to change or are being sceptic and don’t think it possible to achieve zero waste,” says Kranjc.

But even though Slovenia just entered the EU in 2004, they’re outperforming their big neighbor to the west, Italy, by landfilling less. This is down to good initiatives and a bit of luck.

“We are good and lucky in the sense that we were late in the game. We got into the EU in 2004 and adopted all the directives. We were late to build incinerators, so we were not locked in this old practice of waste disposal. We don’t have big incinerators that need to be fed, so we have more reason for separate waste,” says Kranjc.

And it’s not only Ljubljana, who are performing good in Slovenia. The small city Gorje near the picturesque tourist attraction Lake Bled performs even better than Ljubljana and reached 76% in separated waste and the city Vrhnika separated 80%. But despite big cross border plans from EU, it’s still very much up to local initiatives and individuals to lead the way.

Slovenia’s good work is also helping building a bridge between east and west Europe and show rest of the world not to waste waste, but (re)turn it back into a desirable resource, Kranjc believes.

“In Slovenia, waste is a public known topic and something they care about. We’re proud of Slovenia as a green country,” says Kranjc.

 Recycling is not enough – we need to rethink

But to make a change happen, we need to surpass just recycling. We need to rethink. As the former Slovenian Commissioner for the Environment from 2010 to 2014 says: “Recycling is just an emergency exit. For changing linear economic system to circular economy it’s necessary to direct all the energy into innovations, new business models, new product design and encouragement of responsible consumer behavior”. And this is something they’re aware of in Ljubljana too.

“It’s been four years since we’ve ceased to be ‘just’ a waste management company. We’re now more aware of our responsibility to change this world to the better and we hope to lead by example,” says Tamara Vidic Perko from Snaga.

Snaga has as one of their initiatives changed their annual publication into a magazine “for better life decisions” called Snagazin. The magazine brings articles on recycling, ethical consuming and second hand fashion amongst others, and the change received tremendous feedback, Perko tells.

“For us it was a clear sign that our users need and seek this kind of information and are aware of their impact on the world,” she says.

And the snackable-Snagazin isn’t the only unconventional initiative Ljubljana has made. Campaigns with dumpsters protesting in the street saying “If we’re on the streets, it doesn’t mean we’re hungry”-signs to stop food waste or a dustbin singing the blues in a video are just a part the work Snaga have made.

Furthermore, a partnership with a reuse center has been established. The Reuse Centre is furnished with used furniture, a small shop and a repair-room with a corner where visitors can learn sewing tips to repair and learn people not just to throw away things, but to give them a new chance. The Reuse Centre also repairs things and sell them again for a small price. And since mid-2014 the re-sale has more than doubled beyond 150 pieces per day.

Overall, the secret behind the success to take a step towards a circular economy has been a combination of both communication with the citizens and technical measures.

“The key is advanced and effective waste management that goes hand in hand with continuous, user friendly communication that encourages users to engage in behaviors that are even more desirable than recycling i.e. reuse and waste prevention,” Perko tells.

The potential in a circular economy is substantial – both for environment and business. According to an analyze of the Commission’s proposal, the waste directive could create 170.000 workplaces until 2035 primarily in Europe. To achieve this, EU has a whopping €5.5 billion gold chest ready in support from the European Structural and Investment Funds and an additional €605 million under Horizon 2020. Waste should no longer be wasted.