Circular Economy Legislation – The International Experience

Executive Summary. INTRODUCTION. A relatively recent shift in economic thinking has gained influence in some developed countries. Thinking of the economy as a closed system — as opposed to a linear system — has spawned legislation that seeks to hold waste production and energy consumption within acceptable limits. Examples include elaborate recycling and waste management legislation and associated laws and regulations now in effect in Japan and the European Union. Such measures are generically referred to in this paper as “circular economy legislation.”

The People’s Republic of China has endorsed the concept of a “circular economy.” Major responsibilities for drafting circular economy legislation for China lie with the Environment and Natural Resources Protection Committee of the National People’s Congress. The Committee commissioned this paper to examine foreign governments’ experiences with circular economy legislation in an effort to identify those mechanisms and structures worth considering for China.

The common denominator among the countries with the most ambitious circular economy goals is framework legislation augmented by more specific laws that deal with packaging, specific products and specific materials — a somewhat piecemeal approach. None of the countries studied has attempted truly comprehensive circular economy legislation that, in addition to waste management, conjoins the other major elements of an industrial society’s environmental vulnerabilities — air and water pollution, energy, land allocation, and the like. But as will be developed, Japan and Europe are both experimenting with more comprehensive initiatives that look beyond waste management in an effort to reduce material throughput and make products more eco-friendly.

China’s circular economy initiative may already be more focused than that of either Japan or Europe. Its goal of an all-round well-off society by the year 2020 creates high expectations for circular economy implementation. China’s environmental policies must therefore reach further and be more innovative than anything now in place in Germany, Japan or elsewhere. The existing German and Japanese models, standing alone, would be insufficient for China, even though components of their systems may serve as useful models. And if China is successful with its circular economy initiatives, it will step into the vanguard of this important movement.

To achieve its stated goal, China’s interpretation of circular economy should be as comprehensive as possible. This paper therefore seeks to present the widest possible range of foreign circular economy laws as potential models, looking first at Japan, then at the European Union (beginning with Germany), then at the United States, and finishing with a brief survey of miscellaneous laws and international treaties.


Japan experienced escalating environmental problems during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The last fifteen years saw significant legislative initiatives, including the “Law for Promotion of Effective Utilization of Recyclables,” a broad-gauge recycling law enacted in 1991; the “Basic Environmental Law” of 1993, a major pollution control law; the “Law for Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging” of 1995 (LCOLREC); the “Specified Home Appliance Recycling Law” of 1998(SHAR); the “Food Recycling Law” of 2000; the “Construction Material Recycling Law” of 2000; the “Green Purchasing Law” of 2000; and the “End-of-Life Vehicle Law” of 2002.

In the year 2000, the “Basic Law for Establishing the Recycling-based Society” (BASICRECLAW) became the foundation of Japan’s circular economy initiative. This framework law amended the 1991 recycling law mentioned above. The BASICRECLAW, together with the 1991 law, now known as the “Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources” (LPEUR), are central to the Japanese legislative circular economy structure.

Many Japanese laws contain very comprehensive and lofty goals. Japanese framework legislation typically spells out specific roles for government, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and the public. The roles may simply be to “encourage” or “promote” certain policies, such as recycling or re-use of materials. This technique may be effective, or at least influential, in a society that values consensus-building and personal responsibility. But its use in other countries with different cultural norms may not be so promising. Moreover, it is the implementing regulations and not the framework legislation that set specific and enforceable targets. And Japanese regulations have been criticized as too timid and as lacking effective enforcement mechanisms.

Japan’s circular economy legislative experience has produced mixed results. Many of the programs, most notably under LCOLREC, have been expensive to implement. Other laws, like SHAR, have produced unintended consequences such as illegal dumping. The recently enacted PC recycling regulations seek to avoid the SHAR experience by imposing a front-end fee structure for recycling. Another promising law is the Green Purchasing Law, obligating governmental entities to buy certain “green” products. In some cases, this law has actually helped to create the threshold demand necessary for manufacturers to begin producing “green” products at a profitable level.

Perhaps the most highly regarded Japanese circular economy initiative is the Top Runner Program. The Program is narrow in scope, covering products and services that use energy. It employs a combination of economic and command-and-control policies, and its enforcement mechanisms are somewhat unconventional, employing, for example, the “name and shame” device. In general, the government selects the “top” product in a given product category and mandates that its energy efficiency characteristics as the baseline requirements for all products in the same category by a specific date. By and large, the Program has been a demonstrable success. China might find Top Runner Program a useful model not only for energy efficiency, but for other applications as well.


Preface to the EU

The European Union (EU) prescribes policies and legislative requirements for its member states in the form of European Commission “directives.” Until recently, the EU was not a major innovator in circular economy measures; its member states played that role. Its early waste management framework directive, promulgated in 1975, was largely ineffective. In 1991 it promulgated new directives, primarily in reaction to Germany’s launch of its ambitious packaging waste program that same year. It seems logical therefore to examine the German circular economy legislation before looking at the EU framework, as echoes of the German program can be heard in the EU framework itself as well as in other EU member states’ enactments.

Though an appreciation of German legislation is central to an understanding of the EU framework, the initiative now appears to be with the EU. At last, the EU is exercising some leadership in the circular economy field with its Integrated Product Policy (“IPP”), discussed at greater length below, following the section on Germany’s laws.


Germany was the first European country to systematically confront solid waste problems, primarily driven by concern that its solid waste disposal facilities were filling up and could not easily be replaced. In June, 1991, the German Cabinet approved the “Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste” (VERPACKVO), which was the first of its kind in Europe. VERPACKVO was supplemented and expanded three years later by the “Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act” (KrW-/AbfG), now considered the most significant element of German circular economy legislation. The principal innovation of KrW-AbfG was to create a framework for the imposition in selected situations of “Extended Producer Responsibility,” or EPR.

VERPACKVO, a dramatic legislative enactment, imposed a duty on industry to take back packaging materials without charge and to reuse or recycle them. However, it exempted those manufacturers and distributors who agreed to participate in a system that guarantees regular collection of packaging materials. The exemption gave birth to the famous Grüne Punkt collection system, which achieves very high rates of recovery and reuse of packaging materials. The costs of that success are high, however.

KrW-AbfG, the framework law that postdated VERPACKVO, did not itself create EPR but rather, enabled the promulgation of implementing ordinances that impose EPR in specific cases. Subjects that have been addressed by ordinances promulgated under KrW-AbfG include waste oil, municipal wastes, and waste wood. The mosaic of implementing ordinances under KrW-AbfG is responsible for Germany’s high recovery and recycling rates for a great many products in addition to packaging, including batteries and certain types of paper. But as with Grüne Punkt, costs tend to be high.

In sum, KrW-/AbfG and the ordinances implementing it offer a useful model of an overarching framework statute and of more focused, material-specific EPR formulations. But any attempt at replication in China should be preceded by a careful cost/benefit analysis of this approach within a Chinese context.

European Union

In 1991 the EU amended its 1975 directive on waste management twice. The 1991 amendments firmly established the “reduce, reuse, recycle” priorities for the EU. In 1996, two more amendments were promulgated. Read together, the 1975 directive and its four amendments make up the current framework governing the enactment by EU member states of legislation to manage waste.

Pursuant to the framework, EU member states must enact legislation to prevent “uncontrolled discarding, discharge and disposal of waste” and to promote reduction, reuse, and recycling, in that order, over disposal. Provision is made for private waste collection systems, such as the innovative German Grüne Punkt system. The EU framework does not explicitly impose EPR on any products (though EPR is permissible — as in the German KrW-/AbfG). It does expressly endorse the “polluter pays” principle.

In addition to the directives that created the EU framework, there are a number of EU material-specific and product-specific directives, such as a packaging directive, a directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, and a directive on end-of-life vehicles.

As mentioned earlier, the EU may be on the verge of major innovations as regards circular economy. A new focus on product life cycle interventions has the objective of waste prevention as opposed to merely waste management. The most encouraging illustration of this shift is the Integrated Product Policy (“IPP”). The objective of IPP is products and services that appeal to consumers but result in less environmental impact throughout their life cycles, from the mining of raw materials to production, distribution, use, and end of life disposition. It anticipates the need for a “mix of instruments,” carefully selected and fine tuned to ensure a maximum effect.

The challenge is to infuse more environmentally friendly products with consumer appeal. Once a product is put on the market, there is relatively little than can be done to improve its environmental characteristics. But if consumers do not buy greener products or use them in an environmentally friendly way, all efforts are in vain. Ecodesign must be market wise. And legislation is but one tool. The objective is to focus on those decision points that strongly influence the lifecycle of products and their impacts.

The European Commission has not yet promulgated an IPP framework directive. But some of the concepts have already found their way into other directives, such as a directive relating to energy-using products.

IPP may represent the most innovative circular economy activity now unfolding in Europe. Like the Top Runner Program in Japan, the IPP initiative is somewhat unconventional. It reaches beyond waste management, and addresses materials input and product life cycle issues. Like Top Runner, it does not depend exclusively on legislation, but uses a range of other mechanisms and processes. IPP may be of particular interest to China.


There is no broad gauge federal legislation comparable to the Japanese BASICLAW, the German KrW-/AbfG or the EU’s framework directive. The United States has not been a trend setter in the circular economy field. Assuming that the U.S. Congress could pass comprehensive circular economy legislation, it has not done so. The “reduce, reuse, recycle” principles, though enjoying limited success in some local and state jurisdictions, have yet to take root at the federal level. The “polluter pays” principle likewise has had limited application.

As part of their non-hazardous solid waste responsibilities, some of the fifty states have implemented various kinds of “take back” arrangements — for example, schemes for used oil, curbside recycling, selective landfill bans on certain materials, minimum content laws, labeling laws, beverage container recycling, and green labeling. Typical state waste management plans such as Rhode Island’s incorporate “reduce, reuse, recycle” principles.

The beverage container recycling laws in effect in about a dozen states may hold some interest for China. All but one are deposit systems; the California system does not utilize a purchaser deposit, but relies instead on a system, similar to Grüne Punkt, whereby distributors pay fees into a state fund that compensates recycling centers for collecting and processing recyclable material. All of the beverage container recycling laws improve the recovery rate of recyclables over the national average.

In the electrical and electronic waste area, a number of states have enacted mutually inconsistent recycling laws, some with EPR features. Spurred by this state activity, electronics manufacturers have appealed to the U.S. Congress to consider a unified federal solution to the problem. But so far there has been disagreement about how to finance a national program for recycling e-waste, and enactment of federal legislation seems a relatively remote possibility.

With a possible exception of beverage container laws, the United States seems an unlikely source of inspiration for Chinese circular economy legislation.


Comparative Thoughts on Beverage Container Legislation

Contrasting various jurisdictions’ beverage container recycling law experiences suggests that a simple, comprehensive approach is the better approach. The comprehensive legislation covering beverage containers in Japan and Europe clearly works well. Legislation using a deposit system as found in the United States is about as effective as the uniform packaging legislation in effect in Japan and Europe. But the highly ramified circumstances of this kind of legislation suggests that wholesale appropriation by one jurisdiction of another’s approach to this touchy issue could be risky.

International Treaties Relevant to Circular Economy

Three international treaties or regimes are pertinent to any national consideration of circular economy legislation: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, the World Trade Organization, and the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each of these treaties or regimes can technically impact national efforts to achieve a circular economy.

Three Types of Law that Regulate “Due Process”

Laws that promote public participation in environmental decisions are relevant to circular economy because public participation is indispensable to the effectiveness of environmental protection policies. Three types are mentioned, with no attempt at analysis or exposition: laws founded on the “Pollutant Release and Transfer Register” principle, environmental impact assessment laws, and laws that afford the public access to information.

Miscellaneous Materials

There exist many intriguing arrangements that have connections to the circular economy. The most persistently encountered are the eco-industrial park idea, such as at Kalundborg, Denmark, and the voluntary or negotiated Extended Producer Responsibility
Regime, such as that found in the Netherlands.


On first impression, more elements of the Japanese circular economy experience seem relevant to the Chinese situation than the European or the US experience, respectively. Nevertheless, the latter jurisdictions do warrant careful analysis, especially Europe. In particular, the EU’s emerging Integrated Product Policy bears careful study, and should be evaluated in relation to the “Top Runner Program” in Japan.

To achieve its goal of an all-round well-off society by the year 2020, China is in need of a new development paradigm, and no legislative scheme that emphasizes recycling without seeking to influence product design and reduce throughput meets that criterion. An international trend has arisen in favor of early intervention in product design, utilizing legislation but employing many more tools and devices. The goals must be greater product efficiencies, longer product lives, amenability to recycling and reuse, and low waste disposal potential. Comsumers must be educated and sensitized to the importance of environmental considerations as factors when making product choices.

Achieving circular economy will not be easy. But China’s pursuit of this worthy goal will not only facilitate the all-round well-off society, it can also serve to provide the world with an effective formula for simultaneously conserving inputs, managing waste, and achieving sustainable development where, in candor, none currently can be said to exist.

By: G. Gordon Davis, JD, and Jessica Anne Hall, JD

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