Following an intense consultation phase with stakeholders (businesses, councils and citizens), in April 2018 the French government licenced the roadmap that will guide the country’s transition towards a circular economy (Feuille de route de l’économie circulaire). The ambition is clear: after becoming world-leaders in climate defence, the new target is to achieve primacy in the promotion of the circular economy, placing French businesses amongst the strongest ‘circular’ performers in Europe thanks to an increase in competitiveness, which is to be achieved by “closing the loop” in terms of resource use. “Today there is a need to adopt a global vision for the use of resources that goes beyond simply fighting waste and promotes a complete societal transformation, in a spirit of increased resilience and with an aim to decouple the increase in wellbeing from environmental impact.” These are the words of Christophe Debien, Director General of the Institut national de l’économie circulaire, which in essence set out the need to achieve higher levels of welfare and prosperity while consuming less resources and creating less waste. “The coherence of the government’s action [is to be guaranteed] through the institution of an inter-ministerial delegate for the circular economy,” says Debien. Will the system, and the country more generally, be able to rise to the challenge and benefit from the opportunities that the government’s actions have created?
In the path toward consolidation of the circular approach in France, Debien positions at the forefront “local administrations, followed by large scale industry – particularly the recycling sector – while consumers and smaller businesses are in a more difficult position. The former because there is a lack of information on the very nature of the circular economy and on the behaviours to be adopted, and the latter because they struggle to change their business models in a circular sense.” Among the productive sectors, “the least advanced are the plastics, construction, textile and clothing industries. For the latter one, however, Debien points out that communication channels are already in place to reduce their impact.”
Furthermore, the roadmap itself has no qualms in underlining the fact that the country has a lot of room for improvement. Every year, 22 million tonnes of organic waste end up in rubbish bins and are never recovered or properly processed. Generating 247 million tonnes a year, the construction and demolition sector is responsible for over two thirds of waste produced in France. Recovery figures for solid urban waste in 2014 hovered around 39%, with half of the remaining 61% made up of organic waste that ended up in landfills or incinerators, “creating problems for the surrounding territory and a waste of energy that was incompatible with the Plan Climat objectives.” The percentage of recycled plastic packaging was stuck at 20%, way below the 30% EU average, whereas the collection of plastic bottles was 55%. A situation defined as “mediocre,” and prompted the government to intervene “to both construct an economic framework promoting recovery rather than destruction of waste, and bring about the conditions to come close to 100% collection of recyclable waste.”
The objectives that define the French circular strategy can be synthesised as follows: drastic reduction of the use of raw materials; increased taxes on the use of landfills and incinerators, and, concomitantly, decreased VAT rates for activities related to waste production prevention, separate collection of recyclables, selection and recovery; total recycling of plastics; increased use in industry of recycled materials; and increased use of recycled products by public administration bodies, ranging from paper (at least 50%) to tyres and refurbished cell phones. A set of objectives that explicitly pushes the country to be less dependent on imports of raw materials, and thus less susceptible to the instability of global markets.
If the spotlight is aimed at percentages, quantitative data and timeframes, it emerges that the government hopes to achieve the following objectives: a 30% reduction, by 2030, of the 2010 levels of resource consumption in relation to GDP; to halve, by 2025, the 2010 amount of non-hazardous waste that ends up in landfills; to reach 100% recycling of plastic by 2025, thus eliminating 8 million tonnes of climate-changing emissions a year, considering that “the production of a recycled plastic bottle allows for a 70% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to one made from virgin plastic”; to collect, by 2025, 100% of recyclable waste. “Starting from 2021, taxes on landfill disposal and incineration will increase, respectively, by 12 and 5 euro per tonne, and by 15 euro per tonne in cases where energy recovery exceeds 65% (included),” announced Brune Poirson, undersecretary for the Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition (Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire), in November 2018. Last but not least, with the predicted measures it is expected that 300,000 stable green jobs will be created. These will not be relocatable, and will be centred around the new roles that will emerge from the so-called “functional economy,” i.e. the market of shared services that will replace the individual possession of goods; a solution that allows for intensive use while reducing the amount of products on the market.
Identikit of the Institut Nationale de l’Économie Circulaire
Founded in 2013 by François-Michel Lambert, a member of the National Assembly and promoter of the bipartisan parliamentary group for the circular economy, the French National Institute for Circular Economy has over 200 partners, both public and private – businesses, professional associations, universities, and NGOs – that guarantee the institute’s autonomy and self-financing through membership fees. Its mission includes promoting activities ranging from study, research and education to advocating good practices and organising events. It was heavily involved in the production of the circular economy roadmap, both by identifying measures and by involving its members in workgroups, particularly the one devoted to determining voluntary commitments for companies in the use of recycled plastic. This collaboration will continue even after the expected approval of the circular economy law in April 2019.
The path set out in the Feuille de route de l’économie circulaire is articulated across fifty precise measures that establish time frames, instruments and the philosophy behind the circular transition. A process that, according to the French government’s plans, is fully integrated with the social and inclusive transition, with the Plan Climat (the national energy plan) and with the Sustainable Development Objectives (Objectifs du développement durable - ODD) of the 2030 Agenda for France. In this climb towards circularity, a crucial role is ascribed to the development of eco-design, and to the process of digitisation which will allow, among other things, to create platforms to manage the demand and supply of recycling materials, to publicise available repair services and to raise awareness of good domestic practices.
The fifty measures are grouped into four thematic groups: improving production; improving consumption; improving waste management; raising awareness and mobilising all those involved, from businesses and industries to local bodies and consumers.
To increase the lifespan of products and combat planned obsolescence (France was the first country to make this practice illegal back in 2016, whereby failure to comply can lead to two years in prison and up to 300,000 euros in sanctions), starting on January 1st 2020, a label will have to be placed on appliances, electronics and electrical equipment stating the reparability index of the product and the availability of replacement parts, or lack thereof (which cannot be omitted). A measure which France would like to have extended across the EU, and which has great potential to be effective: according to a survey conducted by the French Ministry for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, only 38% of French citizens send electrical and electronic appliances to be repaired, but 88% state that knowing the predicted lifespan of a product would influence their buying choices. The French government also plans to bring the issue of extending the length of the legal guarantee of conformity, which is currently at two years, to the EU’s attention.
The roadmap, first and foremost, asks the automotive sector, as well as the packaging, construction and electrical and electronic equipment industries, to voluntarily increase targets for the use of secondary raw materials, particularly in relation to plastics. To support the transition towards the use of recycled raw materials the government will activate public and private financial instruments such as green bonds. Two thousand businesses will be assisted in the path towards the reduction of material consumption and waste. A support system which has already helped 80% of the businesses that benefit from the scheme save over 180 euros per employee per year.
As far as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is concerned, in connection with the application of the “polluter pays” principle, new groups have been added to the fifteen existing sectors that handle post-consumer management of fifteen refuse types (packaging, paper, WEEE, furniture, clothing and shoes, used batteries, paint for domestic use, tyres, vehicles to be scrapped, recreational vessels, medical waste, unused pharmaceuticals, gas canisters, waste oils, and agricultural waste). The new groups will cover waste from the hospitality industry, toys, sporting and leisure goods, home improvement, gardening and cigarettes. EPR sectors will be handed reuse, repair and recycling objectives for recovered products, a portion of which will be donated to subjects within the remit of the social and inclusive economy. By 2019 an economic incentive will also be introduced for the promotion of collection and reuse of old mobile devices. Other specific measures will affect the collection and recycling of construction materials derived from demolitions.
A Circular and Participative Roadmap
The stakeholder consultation process for the circular economy in France began at the end of October 2017 and ran until March 2018, with the involvement of over 200 subjects. The government instituted four workgroups – dedicated to territories, plastic, sustainable production and consumption, and economic instruments – all of which met five times. Running parallel to this, through an online platform between November and December, over 1,800 citizen contributions were collected. After the presentation of the synthesis of the first proposals made by the workgroups, a second series of workshops began in January to allow local bodies, businesses, organisations and NGOs to exchange views and define instruments to help achieve their objectives. At the beginning of February a draft of the roadmap was circulated, and online consultation was reopened, gathering over 3,000 contributions and almost 30,000 citizen votes before closing on February 25th. Finally, in April, the government approved the roadmap, which will be made into law next year.
In five pilot sectors (furniture, textiles, hospitality, electronics and food) an environmental label will be trialled on a voluntary basis, with the aim to inform consumers about packaging and its final destination, the recyclability of products and environmental impacts; in the hope that a more sustainable and environmentally friendly market will be promoted.
In terms of advantages to citizens, separate collection of waste will be radically simplified: by 2022 the protocol for dumpster colours will be made homogenous across the entire country. “In places where collection happens door-to-door, all packaging will be disposed of in yellow bags,” says Debien. “Additionally, to incentivise collection of cans and plastic bottles reaching 100%, a cautionary deposit will be introduced, that will be returned to the consumer through the so-called ‘inclusive delivery.’ Following the example of Sweden, citizens who return cans or bottles to recycling centres or to automated machines in supermarkets will receive a bonus that can be exchanged for cash or purchases,” or even donated to environmental, health or social interest projects. In cities where, thanks to this mechanism, 100% collection has come close to being achieved, environmental attitudes have also improved: if they have a monetary value, bottles and cans no longer get thrown away in the street. Finally, councils that adopt a points-based tariff for the collection of domestic waste, with the well-known purpose of reducing undifferentiated waste, will receive incentives for three years through a reduction of state responsibility taxes.
Food waste will be confronted according to the guidelines set out in the national food policy (Feuille de route 2018-2022 politique de l’alimentation. États généraux de l’alimentation), for example with educational pathways dedicated to young people and consumers, and with the imposition for the operators of collective food provision to make donations of food to charitable organisations, an obligation that is already in place for supermarkets whose floor space is over 400m2. Similarly, the textile industry will be urged to follow the principles of the fight against food waste, to avoid unsold clothing being thrown away.
In order to fill the information gap and increase consumer sensibility the government has instructed the Institut de l’économie circulaire to create a series of TV productions to be broadcasted at primetime: “These infomercials will each be a minute long,” explains Debien, “like capsules of ecology and domestic ‘circularity’ that will address waste management, mobility and energy use within the home.”
The Feuille de route de l’économie circulaire, having now been clearly defined, is on the path towards legislative approval. The provisions that will turn it into law will be scrutinised by the cabinet in February 2019, and then voted upon by the Assemblée Nationale in April. According to Debien, four legislative pillars will uphold the various measures: “Implementation of EU directives on waste; reform and enlargement of EPR sectors; measures for the management of plastics; and marketing measures” all aimed at promoting sustainability, reparability and longer product life for consumers.
Once the law has been approved, the challenge for France to become ‘top of the class’ in circular economy terms will officially begin. One thing, however, is still unknown at the time of writing: whether the gilets jaunes revolt will put a spanner in the works of the government’s plan.
Feuille de route pour l’économie circulaire, www.ecologique-solidaire.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/Feuille-de-route-Economie-circulaire-50-mesures-pour-economie-100-circulaire.pdf
Institut national de l’économie circulaire, https://institut-economie-circulaire.fr