By 2050, the world will consume resources equivalent to three planet Earths. With an ever-increasing unsustainable consumption of finite resources, rapid and deliberate action is critically needed to respond to this challenge. And yet in 2019, we sent less than a tenth (a mere 8.6%) of all material produced back into the cycle, to be reused and recycled. That is down 1% from 9.1% in 2018, demonstrating progress is not exponential, write Cliona Howie and Laura Nolan.
A circular economy development path in Europe could result in a 32% reduction of primary material consumption by 2030, and 53% by 2050. So what is hindering bold action to achieve these targets?
In March 2020 the EU launched a new Circular Economy Action Plan in response to making Europe “cleaner and more competitive”, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating that a “circular economy will make us less dependent and boost our resilience. This is not only good for our environment, but it reduces dependency by shortening and diversifying supply chains.” In September, von der Leyen proposed to increase the targets for emission reduction by more than a third on the road to the EU becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Simultaneously, regional and national governments are fighting the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic to help rebuild their economies, create and save jobs. A circular economy transition is key to that rebuild, all the while reaching net-zero emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement and recent EU Green Deal to ensure our economy sets a sustainable path for our future.
Commit to a circular economy to secure jobs and financing
A circular economy can create new economic opportunities, ensure that industries save materials, and generate extra value from products and services. From 2012 to 2018 the number of jobs linked to the circular economy in the EU grew by 5%. A circular transition at European scale could create 700,000 new jobs by 2030 and increase the EU’s GDP by additional 0.5%.
A circular economy can boost investments, secure new funding and speed up recovery plans following the pandemic. Regions that embrace the circular economy will be able to harvest funding from the European Union’s 'Next Generation EU' recovery and resilience financing instruments, including the European Green Deal Investment Plan, InvestEU and funds supporting the Circular Economy Action Plan. The European Regional Development Fund will complement private innovation funding to bring new solutions to the market. Political and economic support from the European Union and its Member States to develop local policies in favour of a circular economy is fostering the development of national and regional strategies and tools for cooperation, such as in Slovenia and the Western Balkan countries.
Moving towards systems innovation to accelerate the transition
Today we can see many great single initiatives in cities and regions across Europe. But “conventional approaches will not be sufficient,” the Commission pointed out last December when it published the European Green Deal proposals. Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said “a more systemic change will be necessary to move beyond just waste management and achieve a true transition to a circular economy.”
While existing innovation projects add value to the transition to a circular economy, the challenge we still face is the need to work across many disciplines and value chains simultaneously. This cross-cutting approach requires sophisticated and formal coordination. The transition to a circular economy must be systemic and embedded in all parts of society to be truly transformative.
There is no template, but there is a methodology
People are quick to look at a problem and find an immediate solution. Solutions to single challenges will incrementally improve the current status, but will not help us reach our ambitious goals with the big picture in mind. Furthermore, what may work in one city or region, might not work in another market. “Templates and plans on how to change cities to become circular are a linear way of thinking,” explained Ladeja Godina Košir, Director Circular Change, Chair European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. “We have to learn from each other and understand what has worked. We also have to dare to see how each city is unique to develop circular economy models for each city.”
We need mechanisms that can help us learn from others but also cater to unique environments and continually evolving needs. At EIT Climate-KIC, the process we use to do this is called Deep Demonstration. It is a systems designs tool that converts territories and value chains into living laboratories for circular economy and innovation ready for large scale, action-based implementation.
Deep Demonstrations: a transferable methodology
Slovenia is one example among many countries committed to large-scale circular transition, working with EIT Climate-KIC to develop and deliver a demonstration pilot that will tackle entire value chain transformation by leveraging policy, education, finance, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Elements of these experiences are replicable across other European test sites: currently we are working to develop a circular economy transition approach with countries like Italy, Bulgaria and Ireland, regions like Cantabria in Spain and cities like Milan and Leuven, proving that a diverse range of economies can engage and enact transition at scale.
Putting systemic circular solutions in place requires stakeholders to work together across the EU, state, regional and local levels. EIT Climate-KIC is harnessing collective learning across complex issues and challenges, including hosting multiple workshops with actors from industry, administration, NGOs, the public and private sectors, and research and academia.
Leaving no one behind
The main beneficiaries of a sustainable, low carbon transition are the local communities, industry and businesses as well as other stakeholders from different sectors and value chains. It is critical to grant ownership of this transformation and its action plans to all citizens, without which effective transition will not occur. This includes community members, public servants, academics, entrepreneurs, students and policymakers.
This integration of all actors across so many sections of our society ensures that receptive and fluid interface frameworks are built into the portfolio approach. Yet, today policy and fiscal frameworks are designed for a linear economy. By working with public administration and the European Commission to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue, EIT Climate-KIC leverages action across various levels of governance and sectors: if we need to change the entire system, working with one Ministry alone will not cut it. In our ongoing work, we have seen many departments within regions earnest and determined to work together. But when decision makers gather around the table to unpack a complex problem like a circular economy, it is not uncommon to realise there has not been enough time to have the right conversations to coordinate programmes than span several inter-departmental or ministry budget lines. Within our Circular Economy Transition Deep Demonstrations, the Transition Policy Lab works across multiple government bodies to reshape and reformulate new policies that integrate circularity into a new regulatory framework.
A circular economy can lead to sustainable and inclusive societies
Engaging all different communities and stakeholders, as well as providing spaces where anyone can learn, develop and maintain relevant skills, enables citizens to take part and engage in the transitions - ensuring the diverse reality of a region’s population remains in focus.
If at this time of unprecedented societal disruption, Europe’s regions take this opportunity to build more inclusive and competitive circular economy programmes, the compounding benefits will speak for themselves. It means moving from individual technological solutions to a wider portfolio of activity that will stimulate new skills and create jobs, reach zero-emissions and improve access to an improved quality of life. It means working together, in a fair and transparent way. It means identifying and then changing the policies that are stopping systemic innovation from taking place. Through the support of Deep Demonstrations, EIT Climate-KIC is integrating learnings, helping share these learnings and building on best practice and local adaptation to create sustainable and inclusive societies in other markets, regions and cities.
The reward would amplify everything a region has set out to achieve: reach net-zero carbon emissions, enable regions to remain competitive and leave nobody behind.
Cliona Howie has been working as an environmental consultant for over 20 years, supporting both public and private sectors in areas such as conservation, resource efficiency, industrial ecology and symbiosis. At EIT Climate-KIC she is the lead on circular economy development and transition.
Laura Nolan is a stakeholder engagement expert with experience delivering programmes in the fields of climate change, renewable energy and sustainable development. At EIT Climate-KIC she leads on circular economy programme development and manages European projects such as H2020 CICERONE.
For more information contact [email protected]
The impact of textile production and waste on the environment
Clothes, footwear and household textiles are responsible for water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill. Find out more in the infographic. Fast fashion - the constant provision of new styles at very low prices - has led to a big increase in the quantity of clothes produced and thrown away.
In March 2020, the European Commission adopted a new circular economy action plan, which includes an EU strategy for textiles, which aims to stimulate innovation and boost reuse within the sector. Parliament is set to vote on an own-initiative report on the circular economy action plan in early 2021.
It takes a lot of water to produce textile, plus land to grow cotton and other fibres. It is estimated that the global textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic metres of water in 2015, while the needs of the EU's whole economy amounted to 266 billion cubic metres in 2017. To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required according to estimates, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.
Textile production is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.
Washing synthetics releases an estimated 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean a year.
Laundering synthetic clothes accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. A single laundry load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres that can end up in the food chain.
Greenhouse gas emissions
It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
According to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017 generated about 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.
Textile waste in landfills
The way people get rid of unwanted clothes has also changed, with items being thrown away rather than donated.
Since 1996, the amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40% following a sharp fall in prices, which has reduced the life span of clothing. Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them every year. Used clothes can be exported outside the EU, but are mostly (87%) incinerated or landfilled.
Globally less than 1% of clothes are recycled as clothing, partly due to inadequate technology.
Tackling textile waste in the EU
The new strategy aims to address fast fashion and provide guidelines to achieve high levels of separate collection of textile waste.
Under the waste directive approved by the Parliament in 2018, EU countries will be obliged to collect textiles separately by 2025. The new Commission strategy also includes measures to support circular material and production processes, tackle the presence of hazardous chemicals and help consumers to choose sustainable textiles.
The EU has an EU Ecolabel that producers respecting ecological criteria can apply to items, ensuring a limited use of harmful substances and reduced water and air pollution.
The EU has also introduced some measures to mitigate the impact of textile waste on the environment. Horizon 2020 funds RESYNTEX, a project using chemical recycling, which could provide a circular economy business model for the textile industry.
A more sustainable model of textile production also has the potential to boost the economy. "Europe finds itself in an unprecedented health and economic crisis, revealing the fragility of our global supply chains," said lead MEP Huitema. "Stimulating new innovative business models will in turn create new economic growth and the job opportunities Europe will need to recover."
More about waste in the EU
E-waste in the EU: Facts and figures
E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the EU and less than 40% is recycled. Electronic devices and electrical equipment define modern life. From washing machines and vacuum cleaners to smartphones and computers, it is hard to imagine life without them. But the waste they generate has become an obstacle to EU efforts to reduce its ecological footprint. Read more to find out how the EU is tackling e-waste in its move towards a more circular economy.
Electronic and electrical waste, or e-waste, covers a variety of different products that are thrown away after use.
Large household appliances, such as washing machines and electric stoves, are the most collected, making up more than half of all collected e-waste.
This is followed by IT and telecommunications equipment (laptops, printers), consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels (video cameras, fluorescent lamps) and small household appliances (vacuum cleaners, toasters).
All other categories, such as electrical tools and medical devices, together make up just 7.2% of the collected e-waste.
E-waste recycling rate in the EU
Less than 40% of all e-waste in the EU is recycled, the rest is unsorted. Recycling practices vary among EU countries. In 2017, Croatia recycled 81% of all electronic and electrical waste, while in Malta, the figure was 21%.
Why do we need to recycle electronic and electrical waste?
Discarded electronic and electrical equipment contains potentially harmful materials that pollute the environment and increase the risks for people involved in recycling e-waste. To counter this problem, the EU has passed legislation to prevent the use of certain chemicals, like lead.
Many rare minerals that are needed in modern technology come from countries that do not respect human rights. To avoid inadvertently supporting armed conflict and human rights abuses, MEPs have adopted rules requiring European importers of rare earth minerals to carry out background checks on their suppliers.
What is the EU doing do reduce e-waste?
In March 2020, the European Commission presented a new circular economy action plan that has as one of its priorities the reduction of electronic and electrical waste. The proposal specifically outlines immediate goals like creating the “right to repair” and improving reusability in general, the introduction of a common charger and establishing a rewards system to encourage recycling electronics.
The Parliament is set to vote on an own-initiative report on the circular economy action plan in February 2021.
Dutch Renew Europe member Jan Huitema, the lead MEP on this issue, said it was important to approach the Commission’s action plan “holistically”: “Circularity principles need to be implemented throughout all stages of a value chain to make the circular economy a success.”
He said particular focus should be given to the e-waste sector, as recycling is lagging behind production. “In 2017, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste and only 20% was recycled properly.”
Huitema also says the action plan could help with the economic recovery. “Stimulating new innovative business models will in turn create the new economic growth and job opportunities Europe will need to recover.
Read more about the circular economy and waste
- Facts and figures on waste management in the EU
- The circular economy package: new EU targets for recycling
- The EU strategy to reduce plastic pollution
Find out more
Circular economy: Definition, importance and benefits
The circular economy: find out what it means, how it benefits you, the environment and our economy with the infographic below. The European Union produces more than 2.5 billion tonnes of waste every year. It is currently updating its legislation on waste management to promote a shift to a more sustainable model known as the circular economy. In March 2020 the European Commission presented, under the European Green Deal and as part of the proposed new industrial strategy, a new circular economy action plan that includes proposals on more sustainable product design, reducing waste and empowering consumers (such as a right to repair). Specific focus is brought to resource intensive sectors, such as electronics and ICT, plastics, textiles and construction.
But what exactly does the circular economy mean? And what would be the benefits?
What is the circular economy?
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.
In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible. These can be productively used again and again, thereby creating further value.
This is a departure from the traditional, linear economic model, which is based on a take-make-consume-throw away pattern. This model relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy.
Also part of this model is planned obsolescence, when a product has been designed to have a limited lifespan to encourage consumers to buy it again. The European Parliament has called for measures to tackle this practice.
Why do we need to switch to a circular economy?
The world's population is growing and with it the demand for raw materials. However, the supply of crucial raw materials is limited.
Finite supplies also means some EU countries are dependent on other countries for their raw materials.
In addition extracting and using raw materials has a major impact on the environment. It also increases energy consumption and CO2 emissions. However, a smarter use of raw materials can lower CO2 emissions.
What are the benefits?
Measures such as waste prevention, ecodesign and re-use could save EU companies money while also reducing total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the production of materials we use every day account for 45% of the CO2 emissions.
Moving towards a more circular economy could deliver benefits such as reducing pressure on the environment, improving the security of the supply of raw materials, increasing competitiveness, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth (an additional 0.5% of gross domestic product), creating jobs (700,000 jobs in the EU alone by 2030).
Consumers will also be provided with more durable and innovative products that will increase the quality of life and save them money in the long term.
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