“It is time to change course”. So said EU Commissioners Timmermans, Katainen, Vella and Bienkowska in an article for La Tribune last week, as the European Commission released its public consultation on a new Circular Economy Package.
Whilst it’s of course nice to hear, it remains to be seen whether the Commission can match these words with tangible action when the time comes to make something of the hundreds of contributions the Commission will no doubt receive. Will they be able to come up with what has been largely dubbed a “new, more ambitious package”.
The concern is clear: with an ever growing population and shrinking resources, the global economy is pushing up against its physical limits. In a world where the linear ‘take, make, consume and dispose’ model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, a change of the entire operating system seems necessary. That’s where the Circular Economy comes into play.
The sharing economy has enabled those with “idle capacity” to sell that spare capacity through technology. Similarly, companies on the forefront of the Circular Economy can create new product-to-service approaches, new materials recovery methods, and smarter projections and preparedness for future costs.
And while it may take years or decades for the ultimate vision of the Circular Economy to take hold, the transition has begun.
Renault leases batteries for electric cars, in large part to recover them more easily so they can be re-engineered or recycled for additional duty.
Dutch Carpet maker Desso operates a take-back programme that collects end-of-use carpet tiles to recover their materials for further production or for sale to secondary material suppliers.
These are only but two examples of an increasing number of leading companies and emerging innovators that work towards accelerating the transition towards a Circular Economy.
Rethinking the way we organise global production and consumption, and adopting the technologies, infrastructure and business models required, will surely present huge business opportunities in the next coming decade.
Yet if the EU really wants to make a difference, it will need more than a new and well publicised policy document.
Take ecodesign for example. According to the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of over 140 environmental citizens’ organisations, as much as 80% of a product’s environmental impact is in fact determined at the design stage. Laptops have a raw material consumption of 270 kg for every kilogramme of the final product’s weight. Even small appliances like an electric toothbrush contain around 40 small components.
The most mundane products in your everyday life are wasteful because of their poor design. And yet the Commission so far has failed to properly address product policy.
This is a lost opportunity. There are real benefits to delivering resource-efficient products. As a consumer, it can save you money and reduce your carbon footprint. For innovative businesses, it can unlock new potential and drive productivity gains.
Imagine living in a world where products are designed in such a way that their smallest components can be re-inserted into the production chain instead of being discarded once they have been used. Imagine living in a world that produces virtually no waste, where raw materials are continuously used, reused and recycled in a closed loop.
This is what the Circular Economy is about.
Of course such change will not happen overnight. Such a shift requires a massive change in culture and philosophy. In the week when the G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuel use by end of century, the question remains as to what practical steps can be implemented that will lead to significant costs savings, waste material avoidance and job creation.
Scaling up a circular economy on an international level will require government support to introduce positive legislative drivers, such as waste prevention targets and incentives around eco-design to promote products that are easier to reuse, remanufacture and disassemble.
Let’s hope Commissioner Timmermans will rise to the challenge. After all, he promised no less when he decided to scrap the previous Commission package.