Why the EU needs to scale up its circular economy

Sometimes, the European Union can act fast on big policy issues. It has been just over three years since the Circular Economy Action Plan was adopted, and the European Commission is already boasting about the 54 actions that it has delivered on, with the most visible being the EU Plastics Strategy launched in January 2018. The Plastics Strategy was quickly followed by a wide-ranging series of pledges by companies on recycled plastics, and by new rules on single-use plastics. This has to rank as one of the key deliverables of Jean-Claude Juncker’s outgoing Commission. Yet there is more to come.

While plastic is an obvious symbol of our modern lifestyle, other products will become part of the circular economy. The Commission has spoken about scaling up action at EU level and globally to ensure the proper implementation of the new waste legislation and to support the development of markets for recycled materials. It lists sectors like chemicals, IT, electronics, mobility, the built environment, mining, furniture, food and drinks, and textiles as areas where a climate-neutral, competitive circular economy could be applied.

New green tools needed 

In a staff working document released on March 4, the Commission explains how to broaden out sustainability across the economy through an ‘EU Product Policy Framework’. It notes how eco-design polices are not yet applied in other relevant sectors: while tools for assessing green claims have been developed, they are not yet applied to their full potential. The 75-page document, which was bolstered by a stakeholder consultation between November and January, looks in detail at specific sectors like construction, textiles, chemicals, electrical equipment, transport, food and furniture.

In building and construction, for example, it suggests market incentives will be important to promote sustainability. The sustainable performance of the products throughout their lifecycle assessments could be mainstreamed by boosting their accessibility and by public authorities gradually requesting this type of information. And the Commission says there could be more reuse of construction products, such as windows, doors and frames through measures like comparability of results, benchmarking, optimising overall carbon reductions, promoting the maintenance, durability, lifespan, recycling, and adaptability of building components.

Integrated circular design

How should the EU roll out its Product Policy Framework to the other industrial sectors? The Plastics Strategy is itself a good example of how to induce change. It was the first EU-wide policy framework to take a material-specific, lifecycle approach, integrating circular design, use, reuse and recycling activities into value chains. It engaged with industry stakeholders through the Circular Plastics Alliance. For policy purposes, plastic is identified as having an important environmental impact: it must be collected and recycled. The recycling rate of plastic packaging has almost doubled since 2005, according to Eurostat.

The EU should also showcase the business case for the circular economy. Circularity has opened up new opportunities, creating new business models and new markets. In 2016, circular activities such as repair, reuse or recycling generated almost €147 billion in value added while accounting for around €17.5 billion worth of investment, according to Eurostat figures. And while the EU can mandate various policies, businesses and industries are responsible for the life-cycle phases including design, manufacturing, importing/exporting, purchasing, consumption and recycling /waste handling at the end of the product lifetime.

The Commission has already moved to encourage investment in product sustainability through its Circular Economy Finance Support Platform, which in January offered recommendations to improve the bankability of circular economy projects, coordinate funding activities and share good practices. And the EU has revised the waste legislative framework – with new ambitious recycling rates, a clarified legal status of recycled materials, strengthened waste prevention and waste management measures – as part of its efforts to modernise waste management.

Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s First Vice-President, said this month that the circular economy is the key to putting our economy on a sustainable path, but warned that, “More remains to be done to ensure that we increase our prosperity within the limits of our planet and close the loop so that there is no waste of our precious resources.”

As the EU transitions to a low-carbon, more resource-efficient, circular economy, it opens up opportunities for businesses and citizens. The Commission’s document on the Product Policy Framework offers a glimpse of where Europe can go, showing how the circular economy can be both ambitious and realistic.

Authors: Delia Harabula and Deborah Cwajgenbaum

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