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Fostering the transition towards a circular economy in Europe

Submitted by on 13 Apr 2018 – 09:33

A circular economic model is juxtaposed with the classic linear system of produce-consume-throw away one that reuses, repairs, refurbishes and recycles materials, impacting on the whole product lifecycle. Enrica Belfiori from Public Policy Exchange, writes about European Commission’s action on circular economy

Prompted by the awareness that natural resources are limited and that the rate at which humans are consuming them is entirely unsustainable, the goal of the circular economy is to keep resources and their value in the economy for as long as possible to exploit their full potential, recuperating secondary-raw materials and thus limiting the need to extract new materials as well as waste production.

The European Commission has posed itself as champion of the circular economy in the last few years. In December 2015, it launched the Circular Economy Package (CEP), followed by a number of directives and initiatives in related fields, ranging from municipal and packaging waste to product design.

With the launch of the latest plastics strategy in January 2018, the Commission issued the first findings of its monitoring indicators. Available data does not fully cover the period of action of the CEP, yet it is clear that a slow change is already taking place. Municipal waste generation per capita decreased by 8 percent between 2006 and 2016, while total waste generation per unit of GDP dropped by 11 percent.

Furthermore, recycling rates for municipal waste increased between 2008 and 2016 from 37 to 46 percent. When it comes to packaging waste recycling rates, the EU passed from 62 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2015, but the percentage remains at 40 percent when only plastic packaging is considered.

The July 2017 announcement of the ban of 24 types of waste imports to China provides the final push national governments need to boost their recycling sector and avoid ending up drowned in a sea of waste they can no longer ship away. The Commission is already setting ambitious targets in the field of plastic, progressively eliminating single-use plastic.

The potential of circular economy is not exhausted by the environmental benefits; circular-economy-related sectors have seen a private investment of €15 billion in 2014 alone, the creation of 3.9 million jobs and of €141 billion of value added, a notable 6.1 percent increase compared to 2012.

Moving towards a circular economy is, in other words, a great investment. Change, however, cannot be achieved overnight; it requires a complete overhaul of our production and consumption model and must be backed up by re-education and awareness-raising actions for citizens, producers and decision-makers.