During the WCEF2019, which brings together key circular economy thinkers and doers from around the world, we met with Professor Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA). Professor Bruyninckx talked us through how the EEA is providing accurate and independent information on the environment so as to support policymakers and individuals in scaling sustainable development. His unique expertise in policy-oriented research in the areas of environmental politics, climate change, and sustainable development give us insight into the current state and future direction of the circular economy and bioeconomy. 


The first question is a general one on the situation of waste in Europe. From your research what main challenges emerge, especially for the EU, in achieving a circular management of waste?

“Well first of all we shouldn’t equate waste with the circular economy. I mean, the essence of the circular economy is that waste is only waste if you don’t use it. Throughout Europe we have witnessed serious advances in recycling, in waste separation and, in a number of countries, also in the overall amount of waste produced per capita. Clearly, this has been driven by EU legislation. But at the same time we see very uneven implementation and compliance. The current waste hierarchy is: put it in the ground; burn it; burn it for energy; recycle. We still see a number of countries where putting it in the ground remains the go-to option. We also see a number of countries where incineration is a big option even without a decent system for capturing emissions. So, there is still a long road ahead of us. Another issues is that we’ve been exporting quite a bit of our waste. For example, in Europe only 30% of plastics are collected for recycling and most of this plastic is then actually recycled outside the EU. So, although it’s a very mixed picture, what we can say is that overall there is uneven compliance in Europe. And we still have a number of places where we need to bump up the waste hierarchy quite a bit: from land filling to incineration, to incineration for energy generation, to reuse and recycle.”


The EEA has done some research on incineration for energy recovery. What would it take for Europe to become fully efficient in this field?

“In some cities like Copenhagen, Denmark (where we are located), waste incineration is linked to a very well elaborated system of district heating in the city with a hyper efficient piping system where there is hardly any loss of heat. This is a good example of how waste can be incinerated without producing emissions, or at least remaining well below regulation limits. But it’s hard to say how this could happen for all of Europe. There are other countries that have much less efficient heat recovery systems and are still simply burning their waste. There is a bit of everything. I think member states should reflect on where best to invest, what is most needed and how they can improve waste hierarchies.”


How can the circular economy really impact CO2 emissions and contribute towards decarbonising the economy? 

“Well, to put it quite simply, what happens if we don’t move to a circular economy and protect biodiversity which absorbs huge amounts of CO2 with the carbon cycle of forests, oceans and other ecosystems? There is no way we will ever reach the ‘well below 2 degrees’ objective. There is so much carbon embedded in the material cycle, from very high intensity sectors like the cement sector and parts of the petrochemical sector to some lower intensity sectors. We can’t even dream of getting there if we don’t move to a more circular economy and take major steps forward in resource efficiency.”


A big topic is plastic. There is no clear data on the plastic found in the environment, in our bodies and in the food we eat. Are you conducting any research on the impact and dissemination of micro plastics? 

“We have just published a report on plastic waste prevention, and on plastic with a circular economy perspective. So yes, we are working on this issue. We also work with other actors on micro plastics and their impacts. We know they are damaging: damaging for ecosystems, for the food system and our own health. We must to do something about it and this ultimately boils down to reducing the use of plastics. For example, Europe is banning single use plastics. This is an example of reduction efforts. Better collection and reuse are also important as these mean it doesn’t end up in the environment. Also, rethinking the fundamentals of plastics so as to make them safe by design, which means that if they end up in the food chain or in our bodies or the environment they are not toxic and don’t have the same negative side effects that they have today. And of course we need to reflect on what we can do with all the plastic that is out there already. Which includes everything from the colossal plastic islands found in the oceans (some of which are the size of Texas and France), to the microplastics that are popping up everywhere.”


A substantial proportion of this plastic comes from packaging. Is it possible to limit the amount of plastic used in packaging? 

“Of course it’s possible. Starting with the plastic bags we use when shopping. Globally, we produce one hundred and sixty thousand plastic bags per second. We use plastic to wrap individual cookies and then rewrap them every three cookies, and then again one bigger layer of wrapping around that, only to then put it all in a box, and then we put plastic around six of those boxes, which is just an unnecessary accumulation of packaging material. We can and must do something about this.” 


Right now there is a big debate about finding proper metrics that can take into account not just material recycling and material reuse but also sharing of products and product life extension. How is the debate around which measurements should be used unfolding? Are there some examples?

“Well there are some good practices. However, I would say are they are too small-scale compared to the size of the economy and our material use. So it’s about setting a standard there. It’s about public trust in monitoring and reporting. We need a uniform system that is quality checked and that allows comparability. It’s about bringing it to the right place, so that the information impacts consumer and producer choices and in the end it will be about innovation. We need to be innovative in how we track and follow materials and their value in the economy. Some people are thinking about block chain technology. Others are thinking about material passports for goods. For example, we are looking into this issue with a couple of European frontrunners, (in Finland, the Netherlands and a couple of other countries), to stimulate this sort of innovation and use credible, transparent measures that we can roll out in the EU, and potentially beyond, with regards to material use from a circular economy perspective.”


Have you done any research on the lifecycle assessment of products as a service?

“We haven’t done a lot of research on that because within the EU system we have a process of division of labour. This means that the Joint Research Centre focuses on this aspect in collaboration with a number of national research institutions such as the Flemish Institute for Technological Research, VITO, which is our lead partner on the topic of waste materials in the green economy.” 


We are also talking about upscaling. What would the impacts of shifting to a large-scale bioeconomy be? 

“If we think in terms of systems and of nexus issues between biodiversity, climate and resource use then it’s clear that there is huge potential in the bioeconomy. Europe has a bioeconomy strategy. However, it is possible to imagine both a bioeconomy that is not very circular nor good for the environment and bad for biodiversity; or one that is mutually supportive. ‘The bioeconomy’ doesn’t exist. We need to define ‘our bioeconomy’ and will need to be very precise on where we use biomass or cellulose or whatever biomaterial in question to then transition to an overall greener economy. 

The debate surrounding biofuels helps illustrate this concept very well. Is there a place for biomass in the energy system? Yes. But, does it need to be virgin biomass that is competing with agricultural land or can it be secondary biomass or even tertiary biomass? Can it be algae? First of all the source is different. And then you need to reflect on where you use it. Is it the smartest idea to put biofuels from virgin land into a combustion engine that has 25% efficiency on a good day, weighs a-ton-and-a-half, is used by an average of one or two people to drive only a few kilometres? There must be better ways to use biomass in the energy system. So again there is no silver bullet. It requires careful analysis. But, it’s obvious that moving into more bio based solutions can be part of a much greener economy system.”


Is there enough big data for us to make really wise and smart long term decisions?

“I think we have enough information on this concept for us to take action. We know where the compass needle is pointing. It’s a low carbon economy, a circular economy. We need to protect natural capital and we need to think about human health and well-being. We know enough to act. We even know that we need to act faster than we are doing today. So that’s the urgency that is out there. Of course we need to keep innovating and work with new knowledge and improve that knowledge. If we want more nature based solutions and a bioeconomy we will need strong nature. Because that is the natural capital from which we extract interest and ecosystem services. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go in terms of innovation. Just recently, I was at a at a green chemistry conference under the Austrian presidency where they invited young scientist entrepreneurs. They came with fabulous solutions. It is obvious to me that the real issue is how do we stimulate these sort of out-of-the-box, innovative research initiatives and how do we help them cross the valley of death. In innovation terms this valley is where you go from inventing something to bringing it to the market on a feasible scale. That’s what we need to support. That’s where we need strong innovative schemes that really help the new brains and actors of this 21st century economy.”


Europe is doing much to promote the circular economy, but it is also slowing down due to a lot of legal problems. Are you involved in providing member states with data that helps them make smart decisions in terms of legislative courses of action? 

“Well, we are a network organisation. Our DNA is that we work with the member states and with the institutions in member states. Therefore, we are in daily contact with them regarding our reports on the circular economy and bioeconomy, on resource efficiency, on the policies that they undertake. At the same time, we also provide an analysis of these policies so that they can learn from them. But it’s not something where they have to request them; it’s our DNA. We work directly with every single country. We work with those who deal with waste and those who deal with resource efficiency and with innovation.”


Northern Italy is still one of the most polluted areas in Europe. What is the latest data in terms of pollution in the area?

“Well if you look at air quality we have a big air quality index website where you can click and get the latest 100 days of data on five pollutants and you can compare these numbers with other areas in Europe. We know that the Po Valley is struggling with air quality and it is down to a combination of geography, highly industrialised areas with a lot of people, and heavy traffic. We know that the context is difficult. However, considering the fact that you have millions of people living in the area and that these people have the same right as every other European to healthy living conditions, then we must focus on these mobility and heavy industry issues. For example, industrial pollution in Europe falls under the Industrial Emissions Directive, covering a vast amount of companies, 1% of which produce 50% of the harm. Therefore, you could implement very targeted interventions in this area. And this isn’t only true of Italy, other countries also have complex situations that need addressing with a similar strategy.” 


European Environment Agency, www.eea.europa.eu/it

EEA, Report 2/2019. Preventing plastic waste in Europewww.eea.europa.eu/publications/preventing-plastic-waste-in-europe

VITO, https://vito.be/en

Air Quality Index, www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-quality-index