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| 8 minutes read

EU: Commission publishes proposals on food waste, textile waste and soil health

On 5 July 2023, the European Commission published a package of legislative proposals on “sustainable use of key natural resources” addressing food waste, textile waste, soil health, gene-edited crops, and seed marketing (see Commission press release and “Key materials” below). The package is part of the EU’s wider circular economy strategy and European Green Deal, and complements the draft Nature Restoration Law that is currently being negotiated by the European Parliament and Council.

This blog post focuses on the food waste, textile waste and soil proposals.

The Commission’s proposals on new genomic techniques (NGTs) and plant and forest reproductive materials aim to boost innovative farming techniques in the EU by allowing the use of NGTs and by ensuring more sustainable, high-quality and diverse seeds and reproductive material for plants and forests. According to the Commission, these techniques allow the development of improved plant varieties to make them more climate-resilient and pest-resistant, and requiring fewer fertilisers and pesticides to ensure higher yields. For more information on those proposals, see the links in the “Key materials” section below.

Food waste 

To put things in context, around 10% of all food supplied to retail, restaurants, food services (e.g. school and corporate canteens, hospitals, etc) and households is wasted (around 59 million tonnes every year), with at an estimated market value of 132 billion Euros. Over half of food waste is generated by households, with the processing and manufacturing sector accounting for 20%. Food waste also comes with a hefty carbon footprint, with the Commission estimating that if food were a Member State, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Wasting food also puts an unnecessary burden on limited natural resources such as land and water use. And with a cost of living crisis in full swing, it also raises serious social concerns.

EU waste legislation already requires Member States to implement national food waste prevention programmes and reduce good waste at each stage of the supply chain but the amount of food waste is not decreasing enough.

The Commission’s proposal on food waste – which is being done via a targeted revision of the 2008 Waste Framework Directive – would require Member States to take the necessary measures to reduce food waste, by the end of 2030, by 10% in processing and manufacturing and by 30% (per capita) jointly in retail and consumption (restaurants, food services and households). The Commission would then carry out a formal review by the end of 2027 to evaluate progress with a view to potentially increasing these targets. The results of the first EU-wide monitoring of food waste levels carried out in 2020 will serve as a baselines to assess progress against the targets in the proposal.

However, some have argued that these targets are less ambitious than the UN SDG goal on food waste that the EU is committed to meeting, with some organisations calling for a 50% target “from farm to fork”. However, EU officials say it’s important to set a target that is within reach of most Member States.

Textile waste 

The EU generates 12.6 million tonnes of textile waste per year, with clothing and footwear alone accounting for 5.2 million tonnes. Only 22% of post-consumer textile waste is collected separately for re-use or recycling, with the remainder (78%) often incinerated or landfilled. European consumption of textiles has the fourth largest impact on the environment and climate change after food, housing and mobility. It is one of the top three pressures on water and land use.

The Commission is therefore proposing to make producers responsible for the full lifecycle of textile products by introducing a mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles in all Member States. Producers would have to cover the costs of management of textile waste, which should provide an incentive to reduce waste and increase the circularity of textile products. How much producers would have to pay under the EPR scheme would be based on the environmental performance of textiles (known as “eco-modulation”). Producers’ contributions will finance investments  into separate collection, sorting, re-use and recycling capacities. The aim is to ensure used textiles are sorted for re-use and what cannot be re-used is directed to recycling. The Commission’s overall aim is that, by 2030, textiles placed on the EU market will be long-lived and recyclable, made as much as possible from recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, and produced in a way that respects social rights and the environment and to “make fast fashion out of fashion”. For investors interested in the circular economy, the proposal should drive investments in the re-use and recycling infrastructure for textiles in the EU and boost innovation in textiles’ lifecycle.

The proposal also clarifies what constitutes waste and what qualifies as reusable textiles to address the issue of illegal exports of textile waste to countries that are not properly equipped to manage it. This will complement an earlier proposal for a new Regulation on waste shipments that will ensure shipments of textile waste only take place when there are guarantees that the waste will be managed in an environmentally sound manner.

The Commission’s proposal on textile waste is also being done via a targeted revision of the 2008 Waste Framework Directive. It delivers on commitments made under the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles published in March 2022 (see our previous blog post).

Soil monitoring proposal 

The Commission’s Proposal for a Soil Monitoring Directive would give soil a legal status, similar to that of air and water. The aim is to ensure EU soils are in a healthy condition by 2050.

The Directive would establish an EU-wide framework for monitoring to assess soil health/damage, provide a definition of healthy soil, define sustainable management principles, and provide a framework for the identification and remediation of contaminated land. However, Member states will have flexibility in how to implement these measures. So, for example, Member States will need to establish “soil districts” and appoint competent national authorities to monitor them. They will also have to decide which soil management practices should be implemented by soil managers and which practices should be banned. The proposal does not impose any direct obligations on landowners and land managers including farmers.

Member States will also be required to identify potentially contaminated sites, map them in a public register, investigate those sites and address unacceptable risk for human health and the environment. However, the Directive does cover liability for contaminated land as this is already dealt with by the existing Environmental Liability Directive which has been in force for many years. For countries (such as the UK) which already have well-established contaminated land regimes, the requirement to identify and investigate contaminated sites is not a big ask but for EU Member States that do not yet have such a regime, this will no doubt require more effort than they might realise at first.

To put things in context, over 60% of European soils are in an unhealthy state and it’s getting worse due to unsustainable management of land, sealing, contamination and overexploitation, combined with the impact from climate change and extreme weather events. Degraded soils reduce the provision of ecosystem services such as food, feed, fibre, timbre, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, pest control and water regulation. The loss of these soil ecosystem services costs the EU over 50 billion Euro per year. The new Directive aims to address key soil threats in the EU, such as erosion, floods and landslides, loss of soil organic matter, salinisation, contamination, compaction, sealing, as well as loss of soil biodiversity. The Commission wants to make sustainable soil management the norm in the EU.

Although “soil health” may not sound like the sexiest of topics, it actually plays a more important role than most people realise. In the words of EU environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius: “Healthy soils are an essential part of the solution to strengthen resilience to natural disasters, help us achieve climate neutrality, revert biodiversity loss, and desertification”. 

The Commissioner also said that the proposed Directive aims to pave the way for farmers to boost their income through a voluntary certification system of soil health, which would go hand in hand with the Commission’s recently proposed carbon farming certification standards.

Much has been said in the press about the change of name of this proposal from a “soil protection law” to a “soil monitoring law” (which they say shows a clear pivot from “doing something about it” to just “observing”), as well as disappointment from some camps that the proposal does not impose binding targets for improving soil health or require mandatory plans. However, the Commission says it has to be realistic about what can be achieved between now and the upcoming European elections in June 2024, and that defining and monitoring soil health is a necessary first step towards then improving soil health.

Next steps 

The Proposal for a Directive amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste and the Proposal for a Soil Monitoring Directive will now need to be negotiated by the European Parliament and Council. The aim is to adopt them before the European elections next summer.

This week’s legislative package has been criticised for lacking ambition but the Commission has been at pains to explain that with the forthcoming European elections in June 2024, it needs to be realistic about what can be adopted between now and then. And as the Commission knows only too well from the ongoing, painful negotiations on the draft Nature Restoration Law (see below), anything that might have an impact on farming at the moment is a serious political hot potato. This legislative package symbolises the difficult tug-of-war between Green Deal ambitions and the need for pragmatism.

Draft Nature Restoration Law

The following proposal is not part of this week’s legislative package but it is related to the Commission’s wider work on biodiversity and also explains some of the Commission’s reticence to be more ambitious with its new legislative package.

On 22 June 2022, the Commission proposed a Nature Restoration Law, the first legislation targeting restoration of EU nature. The proposal contained legally binding targets for nature restoration in different ecosystems with the aim of restoring 20% of the EU’s land and sea area by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.

The Council reached an agreement on the proposal on 20 June 2023 (see here). The compromise text introduced a greater degree of flexibility, protected renewable energy projects by the overriding public interest presumption and suggested to find more EU funding to restore damaged environments.

However, discussions on this proposal in the European Parliament have been very difficult, with the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety rejecting the amended proposal on 27 June. The main concern from some MEPs is that the proposed law threatens farmers’ livelihoods and the EU’s food security, with some arguing that the concerns have more to do with certain political parties wanting to garner crucial rural votes ahead of the European Parliament elections next summer. The full Parliamentary vote on the proposal is expected on 11-12 July 2023.

If the Parliament confirms the Committee’s rejection, the Commission will have to withdraw its proposal. If the Commission then decides to table a new proposal, it will likely have to address some of the Parliament’s criticisms, especially in relation to agriculture. Given the European elections in June 2024, it is likely that any new proposal would only be considered after those elections.

Key materials

Food waste 

Textile waste 

Soil monitoring 

Gene-edited crops and seed marketing


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