Efficient and eco-friendly waste management is a challenge in itself. But the EU has an idea how to make it work – how to create resources from waste, thus creating profit opportunities for the economy.
The European Commission promised to present a new Circular Economy Package (CEP) before the end of the year.
Circular economy is supposed to improve the lifetime of goods and optimise them for ease of repair and reuse, as well as limit exploitation and waste of natural resources. The package being prepared by the Commission is considered by stakeholders both to hold significant promise, and pose a challenge for the legislators.
The traditional economy is based on a linear concept of: “extract, process, use, discard”. The circular model aims at preserving the value of resources and energy used to create a given product for the longest time possible. It also tries to minimise waste.
Waste as a resource
The transition towards the circular economy is an attempt to face the challenges presented to us by the modern world. As resources are both increasingly contested and used in a non-sustainable way, and the quantity of waste is rising at terrifying speed, the concept of production needs to be fundamentally changed.
Waste can be used to improve the accessibility to resources for industry. This possibility – as per circular economy’s tenets – needs to be incorporated already in a design phase of a given product.
“In circular economy waste becomes a resource,” stresses Gwenole Cozigou, the director of Directorate C (Industrial Transformation and Advanced Value Chains) in the Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG Growth), in the European Commission.
Circular economy can have a double effect on the environment – it will not only reduce the amount of waste that has to be managed, but it will limit the amount of harmful emissions.
Léonie Knox-Peebles, Senior EU Policy Adviser at PlasticsEurope, said that at the end of the day, the overarching objective was to become a resource efficient and competitive Europe, and the the circular economy was but one of the means of achieving this goal. She reiterated that the first step to becoming more resource efficient was to restrict the landfilling of recyclable and recoverable post-consumer waste. All waste which can be used as a resource should be used as such. A landfill ban would also hugely help reduce greenhouse emissions.
Moreover, Kazimierz Borkowski, CEO of the Polish branch of PlasticsEurope, highlighted the opportunities to increase the levels of recycling of plastics – today used mainly in mechanical recycling and energy recovery – provided by the new technologies, such as feedstock recycling.
“The philosophy of circular economy as such has no drawbacks”, said Zbigniew Kamie?ski, deputy director of Department of Innovation and Industry in Ministry of Economy of Poland. He considers it to be an “optimisation of socio-economic process, including use of resources”.
Yet, he adds that an introduction of such economy should be adapted to specific condition in a given country. It should rely on voluntary schemes, rather than additional regulation.
Longevity and production
“We have to make goods with longer lifecycle, made with better and more sturdy materials. Such products will be more expensive to buy, but considering their longer lifecycle and usability, they will prove cheaper overall,” Kamie?ski explained. But it will prove a challenge to change consumers’ behaviour and to introduce more sustainable way of consumption.
Daria Kulczycka, Director of Department of Energy and Climate Change in Polish Confederation Lewiatan, points out that products described by Kamie?ski can “be considered a threat for the producers. And we still do not have an idea how to make economy grow other than increasing production”, she explained.
Furthermore, a decrease in sales volume may have a negative impact on employment, as one of the simplest ways to reduce costs is to reduce workforce. So a switch to a circular economy may not be beneficial for Europe just coming out of a significant unemployment crisis.
Implementation and incentives
An implementation of circular economy is another challenge. It would require a fundamental change in the way we think about business and industry – the basis of the European economic system.
“A number of varied, yet limited incentives can be used – making public procurement tied to circular economy rules or to recycled resources,” explained MEP Andrzej Grzyb (Polish People’s Party), of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee in the European Parliament.
Beata K?opotek, an Adviser to the Minister in Ministry of Environment of Poland, stressed the need “for a sustainable introduction of circular economy”. According to Kloptek, it would involve “limiting superfluous regulation and properly educating new generation, so they would look at waste as an resource to use rather than a problem to solve”.
EU and the world
Léonie Knox-Peebles made the point that we should not forget Europe’s position in the global economy, that supply chains today were global and that this aspect needed to be taken into account in the upcoming initiatives around the circular economy. That is why Grzyb stressed the need for different goals for different member states, so the ambitious overall plan could be adapted to local economic conditions and infrastructure.
A lack of such diversification would bring negative consequences for Europe. Businesses would depart for the less-regulated markets, so consumers would still get poorly made goods with short lifespans, which would contribute to an increase in the amount of waste. We would not only earn zero profits from the production of these goods – we would also have no control over the conditions in which they are made.
Transcript from the Conference “Circular Economy: Opportunities and Threats for Poland and Europe” organised by EURACTIV.pl – Europejskie Media with our partners: European Parliament Information Office in Poland and PlasticsEurope Polska Foundation.