It is a fact. The circular economy has been a pillar of the outgoing EU Commission and Parliament. “The political power of this idea is obvious,” explains Frans Timmermans – Vice-President of the EU Commission, in the Schuman building’s packed room in Brussels in front of an audience of politicians and businessmen gathered for the EU Stakeholder Platform Conference, the annual event organised by the Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee. “We truly achieved important results. The sense of urgency of such transformation is tangible in Europe. We witness it in young people in the streets looking for solutions to the climate crisis. And the circular economy is one such solution […] that can create many jobs and billions of euros in added value. It is also necessary for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
The Platform, an increasingly important European Commission apparatus, is focusing on the evaluation of the Circular Action Plan’s results and a definition of open challenges to pave the way for a competitive and climate-neutral circular economy, where pressure on natural and water resources as well as on ecosystems is reduced to a minimum.
“Three years on from its adoption, the Circular Economy Action Plan can be regarded as complete,” states Daniel Calleja Crespo, EC Director General for the Environment. “Its 54 actions have been handed over or implemented, as stated in the latest available report” (published on 4th March 2019, author’s note). According to the report results, the Circular Economy Action Plan’s implementation has indeed sped up the transition towards a circular economy. In 2016, the circular economy’s most significant sectors employed over 4 million people, up 6% compared to 2012. The circular economy has also opened up new business opportunities while creating new business models and developing new markets, at national level and outside the EU. In 2016, circular activities such as repairing, reusing and recycling generated an added value of almost €147 billion, with an investment of about €17.5 billion. In Europe, between 2008 and 2016, urban waste recycling increased and the contribution of recycled materials to the overall demand for materials is constantly improving. Nevertheless, on average, recycled materials only meet less that 12% of European demand. This is echoed by a recent report by a stakeholder (Circle Economy) suggesting that full circularity could only be applied to 9% of the world’s economy, leaving plenty of room for improvement. “A long road and a tough challenge that could give Europe an important competitive edge,” adds Timmermans. Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, declared: “This report is very encouraging. It shows that Europe is on the right track to creating investment, jobs and new businesses.”
It deals with multiple issues, from food to fertilizers, from communication to the role of cities. As expected, there are heated debates on plastics, the focal issue of industry and legislators. For the critics of the directive on plastic, thousands of jobs are at risk. But for many delegates it is crucial to act now to stop microplastic contamination and support the innovation in biomaterials and recycled materials.
According to Joss Blériot, executive officer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the challenge is still “creating a circular economy worthy of its name. Obviously, it will take time for this idea to become paramount. To a certain extent, we could argue that the debate on the circular economy was generated by traditional actors dealing with waste management so it is normal that for the time being it is still tackled in this way. But I think that if we could concentrate on the innovation potential of new materials, new business models, focussing on specific sectors and areas, we could accelerate this transition.”
Debates also carried on outside the European Commission and EESC halls. In one of the many evening events, the role of the next commission was debated. According to Simona Bonafé, Italian Democratic Party MEP, we must continue the bipartisan work carried out so far. “Hoping that sovereigntists do not get in the way with their not-so-green ideas.” For other interviewees, crucial topics of the next legislature will be eco-design and circularity measurability in businesses, starting from widespread use of LCA. The Commission tasked European regulatory bodies with developing horizontal criteria to measure durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability and the presence of critical raw materials. These criteria must be applied to existing standards (such as EU Ecolabel) and new ones across the whole Union. Moreover, the plastic circle must be closed and the circular economy package must be strengthened. “We will also have to cooperate with countries outside the EU. Today we have many commercial missions where, together with European companies, we assess the circular economy potential and create investment and cooperation opportunities,” adds Daniel Calleja Crespo. “We cannot work alone. It is crucial to have partners in Africa and Latin America.” The European challenge is still ongoing. The hope is that the next Parliament and Commission can be even braver and take onboard the need for accelerating regeneration processes in our economy. And, that the EESC can continue the excellent coordination and consultation work carried out so far.
List of participants at the 2019 Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference, https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/ce_stakeholder_conference_2019_list_of_participants.pdf
Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee of the Regions, 4th March 2019; http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/report_implementation_circular_economy_action_plan.pdf