Our current resource use is not sustainable and is putting pressure on our planet. We need to facilitate a transition towards a circular, green economy by moving beyond waste policies and focusing on eco-design, innovation and investments. Research can foster not only innovation in production, but also in business models and financing mechanisms.
The European Commission proposed on 2 December 2015 a new legislative package on circular economy. The package covers different stages of a product’s extended lifecycle from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials. The proposed actions are designed to benefit both the environment and the economy, and extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the last decades, legislation to protect the environment has evolved from issue-specific responses to more integrated and systemic responses. The circular economy package is one of the latest examples of such integrated policy responses and is certainly a significant step towards the European Union’s objective of ‘living well within the planet’s ecological limits’.
Our European environment: State and Outlook 2015 report (SOER2015) underlines the sustainability challenge we are facing today. We are consuming and extracting more resources, both in Europe and in the world, than our planet can replace at a given time. On the one hand, economic activities contribute to human well-being and poverty reduction. On the other, they pollute the environment, warm the planet, damage human health while weakening the planet’s capacity to provide for us. Climate change and population growth projection add to the urgency for comprehensive and immediate action.
Although no country has achieved so far both ‘living well’ and within its natural means, there are some encouraging signs. The European Union has started to break the link between economic growth and consumption of energy and materials. Europeans are recycling a larger share of their municipal waste and sending less to landfills. Eco-industries (e.g. working on renewable energy, waste water treatment, air pollution control, etc.) have grown considerably over the last decade and created jobs despite the recent recession.
Reducing dependence on raw materials
A circular economy strives to reduce the ‘inflow’ of new resources, especially non-renewables resources, to use, re-use and valorise the resources in the economy as much as possible, and to minimise the ‘outflow’ of emissions and waste.
The message is clear: potential reductions in waste could generate substantial gains for the economy and human health. Keeping already extracted resources in use would not only reduce dependence on raw materials (domestically extracted or imported), but also boost competitiveness while reducing environmental pressures. A preliminary analysis by the EEA shows that European countries are already taking action to improve their resource efficiency, mainly due to economic concerns linked to resource dependency.
Waste prevention, recycling and better waste management in general are all certainly crucial to minimise the flows into and out of the economy. However, closing the material loop is not sufficient to prevent further impacts on the environment and human health and well-being. Circular economy approaches need to go beyond waste management, and facilitate a transition to green economy. We need to re-think the way we produce, consume and dispose of products.
Unlocking the eco-design potential
To start with, eco-design is essential for increasing recycling potential and extending the lifetime of products. We can design products in a way that they can be easily repaired, have only their broken pieces replaced and have their components easily sorted for optimal recycling.
We also need to consider health and environmental aspects of the materials we use in our products. Eco-design could equally help replace materials with high environmental impacts with better alternatives. For example, it is clear that exposure to hazardous chemicals is a serious health concern. We can adopt clean materials cycles to prevent human exposure to hazardous substances and to protect ecosystems from chemical pollution.
Similarly, bio-based materials, such as wood, crops or fibres, can be used for a wide range of products and energy needs. Apart from providing an alternative to fossil-based products, bio-based materials are also renewable, biodegradable and compostable. However, a potential to shift to bio-based materials should be analysed in view of associated ecosystem and health impacts. There are for example limits to forest exploitation and burning wood for energy could worsen air quality.
Investments to foster innovation
Eco-innovation and research promoting innovative solutions are essential for a shift to a circular economy. Innovation is not only limited to production processes. New business models could be encouraged and supported. There are already many examples of innovative solutions providing services rather than selling products: you don’t for example need to own a car to meet your transport needs. Such collaborative business models focusing on service provision could benefit from new financing mechanisms, since investment and profit follow a different pattern in time.
Public funds across Europe are already supporting eco-innovation but they can play an even stronger role than they do today. Investments in infrastructure, research and cities could all be geared towards facilitating the transition to a green economy. A strong commitment to sustainability backed by a clear financial and regulatory framework sends the right signal to all stakeholders.
It is clear that moving towards a green, circular economy will benefit some groups and sectors, while putting pressure on others. Policy makers will need to take into account equity considerations, both within Europe and globally, and offer support measures to facilitate and steer the socio-economic transition needed.