Renewable Matter # 2 / Numero #2

Circular Economy: All Eyes on the Juncker Commission's Next Move

by Joanna Dupont-Inglis

Shock waves created by the European Commission’s withdrawal of its circular economy and waste reform package have activated advocates of the initiative far and wide across the political spectrum. Both before and after the Commission’s formal announcement of its intention to remove and redraft its proposal, support poured in from industry, NGOs, the European Parliament and the member states.

At a time when the EU is under immense pressure to tackle unemployment, a sluggish Eurozone economy, immigration, energy security and terrorism, the pressure to bump policies perceived as being “soft” or largely “environmental” down the agenda must be immense. But the message has come back loud and clear: this issue is anything but incidental to the EU’s future and to its economic recovery.

The concept of the circular economy is about decoupling growth from resource consumption and maximizing the positive environmental, economic and social effects. It’s about designing products so that they are easier to reuse or recycle and making sure that every product ingredient is biodegradable or fully recyclable. In short, it’s a concept that is perfectly aligned with the development of the bioeconomy and the transition towards biobased rather than fossil based products.

But if further compelling evidence is needed of the need for an EU circular economy strategy the figures are there – initial reports from the Ellen MacArthur foundation, first presented in Davos in 2012, showed an economic opportunity of US$ 630 billion per annum for EU manufacturing.

The foundation reports that consumer goods account for approximately 60% of total consumer spending and 35% of material inputs. Perhaps even more striking, it reports that this sector absorbs more than 90% of our agricultural output, which in terms of potential implications for the system as a whole is staggering. It highlights the considerable amount of value that gets lost or overlooked in the current circular economy model, which fails to realize that an important proportion of what it treats as waste could in fact be potentially useful by-products.

The Foundation’s latest report also highlights the fact that by designing better products from the outset, as well as better processes and collection systems aimed at regeneration, it is possible to implement a model that can work long term, and unlock commercial opportunities along the way. This, in essence, is exemplified by the biobased value chain.

The report goes on to highlight the fact that a tonne of domestic food waste, properly treated, can generate US$ 26 worth of electricity and US$ 6 worth of fertilizer but does not go further to consider the potential higher added material value of such a waste stream in the production of other, higher value, biobased products. However, it does highlight the benefits, both economic and environmental, of the circular model, which has the ability to re-generate rather than simply deplete.

The development of the circular economy should represent the tipping point in the realisation that biobased products and the development of the bioeconomy play a central role in the transition towards a more sustainable future. A circular economy can only be achieved by breaking the linear fossil carbon based model of extraction, use and disposal/emission towards a use of renewable raw materials, increasingly based on residues and wastes. 

The European Commission promises to re-issue a new and improved circular economy package towards the end of 2015 with a greater focus on product design as well as recyclability and end of life. Now is the time to ensure that its proposal reflects our need to make the transition towards smarter, more sustainable, renewable and resource efficient feedstocks and processes to develop the circular economy of the future.