Renewable Matter # 22 / July-August

The Circular Rush

by Sirpa Pietikäinen

We are already consuming about 1.5 times the amount of natural resources that our planet can renew annually. If we continue at the current rate, by 2050 we will require four Earth’s worth of resources annually. The problem is, we only have one Earth.

Sustainability requires a radical change in how we use resources. We need to reach the same level of production and wellbeing with one tenth of the resources and one tenth of the emissions. 

Europe is extremely dependent on imported raw materials and energy. In fact, since 2005 the EU has had a trade deficit in raw materials. Material costs often represent around 50% of a company’s total operating costs. Both raw materials and energy have continued to see a rise in prices. Resource scarcity brings an increase in prices – simple economics. 

European economies cannot survive – let alone grow and prosper – unless we take some radical steps towards increasing our resource efficiency and moving towards a truly circular economy. 

What we need is a true paradigm shift, one that will benefit both our economy as well as our environment. We have to stop wasting precious resources and start using them more efficiently. 

In this challenge, there also lies a huge opportunity. Those that can deliver solutions for the resource efficiency dilemma will be the winners of the new economic race: this means solving the problem of doing more with less and creating increased added-value with less resources. 

Many businesses have already recognised these facts and started to act accordingly. They have taken a leap towards a different mind-set, one where the whole logic of successful business is turned upside-down. These firms have created new business models so as to deliver greater resource efficiency and circular models, including increased renting, sharing, leasing, bio-innovations, remanufacturing...

Business-driven studies reveal important material cost-saving opportunities for EU industry and a significant potential to boost the EU’s GDP. For example, the EU Commission has calculated that increasing resource productivity by 30% by 2030 would create 2 million new jobs and boost GDP by 1%.

In order to support this shift we also need to change the rules of the game. Regulation is never neutral. Legislation is one of the essential drivers of the business revolution. A lot of our thinking and also a big part of the current legislation is created for the needs of a consume-dispose society, and therefore must change to fit the new world order. 

In the circular economy there is no waste, products are designed to be durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable, and when they come to the end of their lifecycle the resources contained in these products are once again channelled back into productive uses. 

Wherever it is possible, we should move from non-renewables to renewables and hence make it easier to calculate what economic activity resides within the framework of sustainability. The bioeconomy has a major role to play in this shift. However, not all bioeconomy is sustainable. An example is the surge in use of palm oil and how this demonstrated the potential unsustainability of bioenergy when it uses products that have other more efficient applications. 

To fully comprehend how the bioeconomy functions within frameworks of sustainable ecosystems, biodiversity and renewability limits, we need appropriate, harmonised and compulsory indicators with full life-cycle analyses. While we are witnessing the increased need for bio-based materials in packaging, chemistry, clothing, buildings and other uses, we are also faced with the limits of renewability and sustainability. This is why we need to apply the principle of ten-fold uses in feedback cycles. Circularity must also be applied to biomaterials, and biomaterials that are becoming scarcer must be employed applying the principle of cascading use. 

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